Sibiri Samake plays the donso ngoni, the ngoni-for-hunters—and he is, hereditarily, a hunter, one of a family of hunters—his older brothers took up the instrument and so in turn did he. This ngoni is a six-stringed instrument, resonant thanks to a calabash, and each note it produces is surrounded by a faint buzz or burr or purr, a woody insect vibration. The calabash and the strings together give it, at first glance, a resemblance to a kora, but the sound is different. This is more of a bass instrument, deeper, and simpler—bluesy say the press releases, looking at its West African origins—a Malian instrument. The grandaddy of the blues. Before it came to America. The heart of the Mande sound.
But move away from the blues comparison for a moment and give the music its due as a separate phenomenon, which, for most of its history, it has been. The label has done the right thing and given us tracks that are long. The first and third tracks run between twenty and thirty minutes each. The second and fourth run between eight and nine. They fade out quickly and then come back in, the gaps are downplayed, the atmosphere of one track continues into the next, almost blending. If you’re going to take this kind of music seriously at all then it needs to be listened to long, in an extended stretch, like this. Short is fine but long is essential. Then you see how it can be symphonic, a symphony done with a small group, not an orchestra but a limited cadre, outstretched, enduring, ideas gathering and forming, the melody building and falling, a chorus appearing, a story being told, lessons being explained and learnt, the same point being re-emphasized, some call and response among colleagues, the ngoni working at its melody, the track turning itself into a steady object, like a body of water, like the sea, with strong currents underneath and waves subtly coming and going on top, most of the waves similar but different, some of them unusually large or strange.
In “M’barassa” for example, Samake settles himself into a a repeating pattern, then suddenly one of the notes is louder than the rest, just one, and we drop back to the normal volume again, but the mood has been changed. It was the simplest change on earth, but it was timed just as the listener was settling down, thinking they had this piece of music sorted out—then this loud note hits and everything is different. Now you’ve been asked to expect something new, and as you’re adjusting to this request he does another thing.
The buzz makes it plush but not soft. One note goes foggily into the next with this drone, the ripple of noise is ongoing, not a series of sharp separate sounds, but a mutter, sometimes a conversation, sometimes an argument, and, relaxing, listening. It’s as though you’re hearing to a conversation on the other side of a thin wall—with your next door neighbours.
In 1995 Samake appeared on a solo album via Musique du Monde, a Buda series that deals in a field recording style, quite plain, and the front cover photograph of that album is plain too, just a straightforward picture with a white border and the same lettering as every other album from Musique du Monde. Krush’s mindset is similar—let the music speak for itself—but the illustration here is more dynamic. They’ve been filming a documentary too, Music in Mali: Life is Hard, Music is Good. Samake makes an appearance. Release date not set yet, but check here for updates.