Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba: I Speak Fula (2010)

(Sub Pop)


I'm still relatively new to Malian music, but Bassekou Kouyaté and his band Ngoni Ba's 2013 record Jama Ko rocked me to my core sufficiently that I have gone back to explore their earlier crossover effort I Speak Fula, a sufficiently accessible album that it ended up being licensed for release on Sub Pop. Though a hot, atmospheric album in its own right, it doesn't do it many favors to cast it in some comparative light against its follow-up. Jama Ko was recorded in the midst of considerable strife, a factor obviously reflected in its intensity and anger. Kouyaté is more openly bidding on this earlier effort for an international audience, and there's a case to be made (as it has been, by Robert Christgau among others) that he and the group slide into mere background pleasantness for much of this record.

The closer one listens, though, the more I Speak Fula's own kind of grace becomes clear, or maybe I just have a taste for these calmer, more florid grooves. What's surprising is that it gradually reveals itself as a much more solemn album, which says a great deal about Kouyaté's sensibility as a bandleader and arranger -- his response to injustice is a cutting, focused but feverishly emotional outpouring that snarls and snipes at its targets, but given time he adds the finesse of a true craftsman to the bleakness. If Jama Ko is punk rock, to use a perhaps gauche western analogy, this is traditionalist rock, but in some ways no less hard or idiosyncratic. With more contemplation and rehearsal likely in play here, the arrangements seem more complete and, unexpectedly, weirder. The songs are typically slower, the drama more protracted and careful, right from the rhythmic but flowery opening cut, which comes on like a red-carpet entrance.

With more time to think and less of a determination to capture a specific, violent and important moment, the band tends to come across as sadder, more troubled, more complicated. The restrained groove and beauty of "Jamana be Diya," for instance, is more melodic than most of the short bursts of vocal anxiety on Jama Ko, but even if its traded vocals are more carefully composed, the final impact is similar -- the musicianship in Ngoni Ba is uniformly impressive, especially Kouyaté's remarkable solos on the ngoni (listen for his show-stopping climax on "Torin Torin"), but they also believe in a subservience to songcraft like any great rock band. Each cut has its own distinct feeling, and each has considerable merit. Again, calling them a rock band sounds facetious and insulting, but this is indeed constructed like a classic American or European pop record -- and several songs are directly evocative, in particular the airtight, locked-in slow-burn of "Falani," which vaguely suggests the Young Rascals' "Groovin'" as much as any other West African record you can name.

The most remarkable song on I Speak Fula (a title highly suggestive of the implied universalism here), is "Musow," which exemplifies (like the later "Ladon") the increasing sophistication of vocalist Amy Sacko (Kouyaté's wife) while clarifying the entire band's allegiances to both Malian traditionalism and the roots rock and folk music of the West. It revolves around a mysterious, almost Middle Eastern hook that immediately edges the performance toward the transcendent, its many rhythmic changes gradually building to a crazed solo that is hard not to describe as some relative of '70s funk, though the chanted "HEYYY" that gives the song its arena-ready climax is tied less to any music than to human community itself. Other songs here are equally addictive and powerful, but none is so surprising. Only "Torin Torin," with its wild stop/start dynamic trading the bare and the beautiful, comes close -- and its harmonic vocals are almost soothing in the end, something that could never describe "Musow" or Jama Ko.

Kouyaté's work has opened a door for me, as I now find myself determined to become more aware of the nuance and power in modern African music, and it also emphasizes the continued grandness and necessity of physical media. I don't normally digress about this here, but it seems necessary: when I wrote the review of Jama Ko linked below this past winter, I was working with a stream on Spotify, a press release and a lot of other people's research and criticism online. As soon as I had the money, I bought the LP, imported from Belgium. It's one of the more expensive pieces of vinyl I've bought in the last few years, but unpacking it revealed just why it was worth the trouble, and why music like this demands to be touched, felt as much as heard. The liner notes explaining the depths of and thought process behind each cut and the gigantic photographs of the band recording the album enhance the experience sufficiently that it feels nearly like a different record, like something cinematic. The picture grows more complete. My thoughts on the record posted here seemed suddenly pale and superficial because of not having yet had this experience, and I suspect the same may be true of I Speak Fula -- which is a less vital record, but no less enjoyable and impressive. I'm going with my gut, but I'm going to argue that if you sample this music and like it at all, that you purchase it in some format wherein the notes and supplemental materials are available to you. It makes a difference, a big one, and genuine renegade art deserves all the support you can give it, now as ever.

Jama Ko (2013)

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