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Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba
Ba Power Clyde Macfarlane , April 21st, 2015 12:00

Ba Power is an album which again showcases the incredible dexterity of Malian heavyweight Bassekou Kouyaté's ngoni instrument. Kouyaté affectionately describes playing the banjo-like lute as his family's "only mission"; his grandfathers, father and now sons are all ngoni players. This mission has, however, been taken to new places under his leadership, thanks to both Mali's exposure to Western music and Kouyaté's rise to international stardom. In 2010 he played Glastonbury with his band Ngoni Ba, and the footage of a packed festival crowd jumping to ngoni driven tunes confirmed how far this music can be pushed. By plugging in his ancestral heritage, Kouyate has in his hands something that could rival the electric guitar.

Albums one and two, Segu Blue and I Speak Fula, saw Ngoni Ba flex from a group that played intricate traditional melodies into one that fitted with the afro-rock genre. On I Speak Fula Kouyaté used a stand up playing style one would adopt if riffing on a guitar, and a low tuned bass ngoni was added to pull the band closer to conventional rock. By album three, Jama Ko, the ngoni had been electrified using distortions, pick ups and effects pedals. Kouyaté's wife Amy Sacko has taken lead vocals since the origins of Ngoni Ba (she features again on Ba Power), but Jama Ko completed the family affair by introducing Kouyaté's sons Madou and Moustafa as the next generation of ngoni players.

Mali too has changed dramatically throughout Kouyaté's career. In 2013, a coup-d'état ousted President Amadou Toumani from office, and radical Islamists still hold the northern half of the country in a merciless grip. Jama Ko had a reflective air of urgency; as a prominent cultural icon, Kouyaté became a political representative by appointment of the masses. So while Jama Ko will forever be synonymous with Mali's instability, Ba Power marks Kouyaté's first chance to have some fun with a fully fledged rock band. Guitarists Samba Touré and Chris Brokaw guest on several tracks, while Robert Plant's drummer Dave Smith provides some genuine rock credentials.

"'Ba' in Bambara means 'strong' or 'great'", says Kouyaté, of the album's title. "This is the album with the toughest sound I've ever made, and I want these songs to grab as many people as possible."

Opening track 'Siran Fen' is a crackling exchange between the band's four ngoni players. The instruments start quite flamenco-like by their delicate licks, but Kouyaté quickly establishes himself by bursting off on a creative tangent. Another standout track is 'Waati', which possesses a sweaty, afrobeat style energy that makes it instantly likable. Amy Sacko is very much at the centre, and she takes on the role coolly; her voice rides the rhythms throughout Ba Power in a way that gives the album an essential human soul, without Sacko trying to compete with the ngoni's voices. Ba Power was recorded in short, raw sessions. It hits hard, yet ingrained in every track is the sense that Kouyaté is letting loose of his previous restraints. This, is surely Ngoni Ba as he always wanted them to sound.

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