PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Segu Blue

If Kouyaté is trying to turn himself into the Diabaté of the ngoni, an innovator who takes ancient instruments and tunes and moves them forward, then he's going about it in the right way.

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba

Segu Blue

Label: Out Here
US Release Date: 2007-05-11
UK Release Date: 2007-03-26

Ngoni Ba? I thought. He has a sidekick named Ngoni Ba?

The ngoni is an instrument, the ngoni bâ is the deeper version of the instrument, and at first I looked at that title as if someone had offered me an album credited to Bassekou Kouyaté and Bongo Drums, or Bassekou Kouyaté and Grand Piano. It was a while before I found out that Ngoni Ba is the name of the whole group. They all play ngoni. We are told that this is Mali's first ngoni quartet and that Kouyaté is one of the instrument's great modernizers. He comes with a pedigree. Those ngoni who were on Ali Farka Touré's final album? He was one of them. Look at the middle of the Savane booklet and there he is, wearing a hat with a wide brim. What about Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra? He was in that too. In fact he's known Diabaté since the 1980s. His wife is a professional singer. This is a man who arrives clothed in expectations.

The most appealing description of a ngoni that I've read comes from an Amazon poster named McZakka who was reviewing Segu Blue. The instrument, he wrote, "looks like a stocky cricket bat." I read that, then looked at the front cover of the album and laughed. He's right, the ngoni there look like big yellow nerf bats, the kind you might give to a child at the beach. Kouyaté's own instrument looks slimmer. "[A] simple desert lute," McZakka adds, but the ngoni doesn't sound like a lute. It has a deeper, meditative sound, hardish but not unpleasant. This is a soft-edged hardness, like an asphalt road with clay verges. On this album the ngoni makes a meditative sound, as if the notes are tumbling down into the open air with nothing to stop them falling.

Segu Blue would suit someone who likes either Diabaté or Touré or both. There are elements of both of them in Kouyaté's style. The ngoni's meditations put it in the same emotional family as Diabaté's kora but the songs have Touré's blues strum. The difference between Touré and Kouyaté lies in Kouyaté's willingness to have fun. Touré's music was often serious. He didn't sound like the sort of man you'd kick around with for a chuckle. Kouyaté does. He doesn't do it all the time, but he does it often enough. In "Ngoni Fola" he gets a group of people clapping in time behind the strings at the beginning and it's as if we're jumping into a kindergarten chant or a musical, that sense of anticipation as you enter a song. This is going to get exciting, it suggests. In comes something that sounds like a banjo. The ngoni is assumed to be the banjo's African ancestor, and once you know that, this short intervention comes off like a grin and a wink. The musicians, and us know something in common.

In "Bassekou" the watery pling of the ngoni rocks to a steady beat, not stated outright, but lying under everything, kicking the song along. The percussion sounds like someone clicking his or her tongue. It's a human sound, a body sound, acoustic, and tactile. Then there is a sound similar to an orutu fiddle, a citron sound, sharp as a lime. The four ngoni bounce swiftly and closely together, now a quick babble, now a trot. All the skill of Kouyaté's long career is in there, popping quickly off his fingers.

Comparisons between this and blues are easy to make. Shift "Mbowdi" lower and slower, remove the chorus of women, take away all of the musicians except one, make the singer tell you in English about a woman who done him wrong, and you'd be in the US. But there are differences, and anyone who bought this expecting to find nothing but a proto-blues album would come away disappointed. In a track like "The River Tune" the difference is distinct. The bluesy chug is there but now it is delicate, it is not expressing human emotions but those of a constantly changing environment, which are less despairing, more contemplative. The male singers have a husky lightness, not the grinding blues mouthful-of-mud. "Andra's Song" is something Kandia Kouyaté might have put her voice to. This is Malian new-roots done with style and fidelity. If Kouyaté is trying to turn himself into the Diabaté of the ngoni, an innovator who takes ancient instruments and tunes and moves them forward, then he's going about it in the right way. This album is excellent.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.