Bassekou Kouyate and Ballake Sissoko are two of Mali’s – indeed, Africa’s – greatest instrumentalists. The former’s ngoni is much more ‘ancient’ than the latter’s kora – a fact that would likely surprise most listeners to their current releases.
One album is very “big”, rambunctious, “plugged in”, with powerful singing. The other is – mostly – a set of intimate, acoustic instrumental duets. Both were recorded in Mali’s capital, Bamako.
“Family band, really rocking” is a fair description of Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba’s Ba Power.
“Chamber music for kora and cello” fits most of Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal’s Musique du Nuit.
Yet the quieter album is no less intense, whilst the louder one offers subtle pleasures as well as oomph.
There is a taste of each – and their actual making – at bottom of this post.
The rest of this text addresses each album, in turn.
Ballake Sissoko does not enjoy as high an international profile as Toumani Diabate.
The latter is certainly a more gifted self-promoter. In purely musical terms, however, they are peers. As collaborator with musicians from diverse cultures Ballake is more than Toumani’s peer.
Next-door neighbours for most of their lives, they are the sons of the first two men to have conceived/recorded the kora as a concert instrument. Traditionally, the kora accompanied singers.
Their (usually, 21-string) harp-lute is a relative newcomer; as Bassekou Kouyate would like the world to know, the ngoni is at least several centuries older.
In 2011 Ballake’s close friendship with French cellist Vincent Segal bore beautiful fruit – their duo’s debut album, Chamber Music.
They made Musique De Nuit in January 2015. Four of its nine cuts were recorded on the rooftop of Ballake’s house, with the African night nicely audible.
Their oft-pensive, lyrical but limber original music is a worldly fusion, but blessedly free of dreary “world music”/”fusion” cliches, excesses and awkwardness. It is not “new age” schlock and there is no whiff of “oh wow, how about this unusual combination of instruments?” Ballake and Vincent are very “present”, listening keenly to each other, and pleasingly uninterested in showing off.
A decade from now a lot of 2015-16’s widely-hailed “world”/”fusion” releases will sound dated, gimmicky, tedious.
This one will still sound fresh, natural, lovely.
Links/ additional info
As Segovia was to classical guitar, Bassekou Kouyate is to the ngoni – the key figure in raising an “obscure’ instrument’s international profile and showing the world that his instrument is not merely”modest”.
If you have more than a few albums from Mali you have almost certainly heard Bassekou Kouyate as sideman, sometime over the last few decades.
A fretless lute, the ngoni is – via the slave trade – the primary ancestor of the banjo.
In 1995 – in “African, acoustic chamber music” mode – Bassekou Kouyate was a key presence on Toumani Diabate’s 1995 alum Djelika.
In 2007 he stepped forward as leader with his ensemble “Ngoni Ba” – the core of which is a plucked string quartet of various-sized ngonis.
Their debut album Segu Blue was a standout African release; great players do not necessarily make great leaders/album-makers, but Bassekou knows how to make great records and how best to present them to the world.
Several decades into his distinguished musical life Bassekou Kouyate became an international “overnight sensation”.
Such success all too often sees artists dumb down their music, swamp it with over-production, “big name” Westerner guests, and unfortunate attempts at singing in English. Often, their music becomes louder, more “electric”, but blander – progressively losing its character and “edge”.
So I was a little nervous about Ba Power, knowing that it sees Ngoni Ba “plug in”, with pedals and lots of distortion.
I need not have worried!
Unless you are allergic to the very notion of “post-Hendrix ngoni”, you will surely find Ba Power electrifying, not just “electric”.
Core performances were captured “live”; the band’s conviction and power is unmissable.
Amy Sacko – Ngoni Ba’s primary vocalist – is the leader’s wife. That has nothing to do with nepotism – she is one of Africa’s most arresting singers.
As is true of many of the great Malian musicians, Bassekou Kouyate is a forceful advocate for peace, mutual respect, democracy and multiculturalism. He is a fierce opponent of fundamentalism and misogyny.
As usual, his original songs passionately address these issues and – again, as usual – his album booklet includes good English translations.
Two lines (in translation) from two different songs:
Even if you are a Chief of State, you are born of a woman
Mali where Islam and tolerance exist.
To these ears at least, Ngoni Ba’s debut was 2007’s “African album of the year”.
At once wild and majestic, Ba Power – their very different fourth outing – was 2015’s most exciting African band album.
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