Music

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
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image