Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba

  • Segu Blue [Out Here, 2007] **
  • I Speak Fula [Sub Pop, 2010] **
  • Jama Ko [Out Here, 2013] A
  • Ba Power [Glitterbeat, 2015] A-
  • Miri [Out Here, 2019] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Segu Blue [Out Here, 2007]
Youssou N'Dour's xalam/ngoni man expresses himself, with the blues nod catchy but hardly the biggest prize ("Andra's Song," "Bassekou"). **

I Speak Fula [Sub Pop, 2010]
At ease with himself and in synch with his people ("Jamana Be Diya," "Falani") **

Jama Ko [Out Here, 2013]
I swear I thought the third album by Youssou N'Dour's ngoni man of choice might be the best ever to come out of Mali even before I got to the notes. There I learned that recording began on the day Kouyate's friend the president was overthrown by the military, and that two songs celebrate anti-Islamist heroes of 19th-century Mali--a martyr whose refusal to leave his animist faith inspired his Muslim protector to fight to his own death for it and a soldier who drank beer in the sanctimonious face of the Muslim cheikh who'd persuaded him to fight for a faith he refused to obey to the letter. From the title party anthem on out, the mood and message are inclusive not just because sharia law proscribes music altogether but because Timbuktu anti-clericalist Khaira Arby gets a track, because the Taj Mahal cameo is the most irreverent Malian blues ever recorded, because every song is fired by Kouyate's political and philosophical passion. Two melodies reach back centuries. Strong-voiced frontwoman Amy Sacko delivers the word. And although the ngoni is a mere lute, Kouyate gets more noises you want to hear out of his strings than any two jam-band hotshots you can name. A

Ba Power [Glitterbeat, 2015]
The Sahara boom in hard-rocking bands more supersonic than the non-African competition is due primarily to the spread of desert guitar--Dan Auerbach, meet Bombino Moctar. But none has rocked harder or livelier than Bassekou Kouyate's family business, where the part of the guitar is played by one, two, many modified lutes called ngonis. Even harder and livelier than 2013's breakout Jama Ko, this lacks the righteous fervor that fueled that explicitly anti-Islamist defense of a Mali "where Islam and tolerance exist," as the new "Abe Sumaya" puts it. Its fervor is formal. Four tracks add trap drums to the hand-held percussion, Jon Hassell haunts another with trumpet and keyboards, and auxiliary white musicians pitch in without butting in. There are also full translated lyrics, which as happens with Afropop isn't always a plus. I'm glad Kouyate's lead singer and wife Amy Sacko gets one called "Musow Fanga (Power of Woman)." But especially given how powerfully she makes herself felt whenever she opens her mouth, I'm not so glad it equates that power with motherhood. A-

Miri [Out Here, 2019]
On Jama Ko and Ba Power, the master picker and tinkerer of Mali's ngoni lute proved that he could rock out with any desert Hendrix. But with that established he feels free to leave the amplifiers in Bamako, return to his home village, and record his most purely listenable album. Miri's lyrics seek love and honor tradition as usual. But "miri" means dream, a dream that on a title track fraught with political anxiety is lovely and arresting--pensive, nostalgic, designed to allay disquiet as thoughtful music can. The warmth of his wife Amy Sacko's vocals makes such weathered guests as Habib Koite and Afel Bocoum sound like they're trying too hard. Only on the final track does she power up. It's about Bassekou's mother. A-

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