Friday, December 13, 2013
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Jama Ko (2013)
As its accompanying press material is quick to announce, this album was made under considerable strife, in the middle of a military coup in Mali, the home country of Bassekou Kouyate and his band, Ngoni Ba. The lineup, which includes Kouyate's wife Ami Sacko and two of his sons, Moustafa and Madou, recorded the album in fits and starts as a nation fell apart around them, descending into chaos and oppression. This gives the terrific and beautiful Jama Ko an added pertinence, a grandness -- and a feeling of both unerring purpose and sorrow, fear of what is to come. As the existence of music itself is threatened in Mali, Kouyate and his family shine a light.
Anger is most evident on "Ne Me Fatigue Pas," fueled by a furious central jam by a plugged-in Kouyate. He is a master of the ngoni, a West African variation on the lute, and his virtuosity throughout this loosely, freely performed but tightly constructed album is never less than breathtaking. His solo on the brilliantly busy title track alone is more expressive than years' worth of guitar wank in Western music. But in the context of a band as well-traveled and intimate as this, his center-stage jamming is only a part of the influx of sound that reaches and instantly thrills the listener.
Many of the vocals here are provided by Sacko, whose wails of passion, anger and dread say everything one must know about the Malian plight and life under the threat of religious totalitarianism with or without a translation. Other vocalists come and go, including Kasse Mady Diabaté and the especially memorable melodic growl of Zoumana Tereta. With so much spontaneity driving the production, the vocals aren't at all smoothed over, which adds to the record's immediacy and underlines just how innately engaging it is. Even though the band's ferociously complex interplay is the main attraction, the songs each have a world unto their own as well -- you will, promised, be humming along by the second listen.
That's not to say the writing or blocking out of this music is simplistic. The first moments of "Sinaly" shift so quickly between menace, beauty, playfulness, solidarity of feeling and joy it sets the head to spinning -- conflicting emotions rule the day here, understandably. The long-prepared-for laying down of these performances onto tape is meant to be a joyous occasion, but the world intervenes and there is doubt. Kouyate and his band's achievement is to embrace the doubt, and the result is a genuine work of art: they have taken a fraught moment of disappointment and disturbance and defiantly captured it forever.
Does it matter if you know none of that? The thing is, you know something unusual is happening here spiritually whether you're aware of the relevant historical moment or not. But no, if you are interested in any kind of music meant to envelop and entice then you will respond with immense appreciation to the intricate wistfulness of "Madou," you'll feel the extended and delectably sustained groove of "Mali Koori" in your bones, and you will bob and shake along to the nasty straight-ahead blues of "Poye." This is a phenomenal, deeply affecting recording, an important one, but its essence is that it absolutely sears with intensity, grace, and the thrill of exciting music played with expertise and emotion.