Album Review: Ba Power by Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
Excellent, Based on 7 Critics
Exclaim - 90 Based on rating 9/10
As a Malian ngoni forerunner, Bassekou Kouyaté is perhaps one of the top instrumentalists in the world, regardless of genre. Ba Power, his fourth full-length with band Ngoni Ba, brings it hard, with lute playing that is equal parts intricate and captivating. Kouyaté has stated this particular project was all about adding a bit more "edge and electricity" to his sound while being mindful to the traditional themes of hope and conflict historically symbolic in much of Malian music.Lead single "Siran Fen" is most evocative of this musical approach, featuring fast-paced percussion, burning distortion and wah-wah pedals and ardent vocals courtesy of Kouyaté's wife Amy Sacko.
Bassekou Kouyaté’s band is Ngoni Ba, which translates roughly as “The Big Ngoni,” a pretty terrific description of what Kouyaté’s selling, if you know what an “ngoni” is. “Lute” is the usual approximation, and that’s accurate insofar as the wood- or gourd-based ngoni is a Malian variant (even if the West African-derived and more percussive banjo seems a closer spiritual cousin). But Kouyaté’s ngoni collection has been retrofitted into hybridized electric instruments festooned with pickups, decked out with additional strings, and gloriously hooked through wah-wah pedals.
These are good times for African music. The continent is getting more exposure than ever before, new acts are emerging with pleasing regularity and each year sees established names return on what seems to be a constantly revolving basis. Malian griot and ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté undoubtedly falls into the latter category. Ba Power is his fourth album with his band Ngoni Ba (his first for leading world music label Glitterbeat) and continues the progressive trend set in motion by its predecessors.
Two years ago, the world’s greatest n’goni player released the magnificent Jama Ko, an album that matched furious songs about the chaos then threatening Mali with exhilarating solos on the ancient African lute, transformed with electric pick-ups and effects pedals. Now, Kouyaté has decided to add guests and new instruments to his family n’goni band, but they aren’t always necessary. The opening Siran Fen is a stomping workout that’s helped by the added percussion of Dave Smith (of Robert Plant and JuJu fame), but there is no need for electric guitar solos, however efficient, when the Hendrix of the n’goni is on hand.
Malian griot Bassekou Kouyaté has emerged as one of African music’s visionaries, investing his four-stringed ngoni with the grandeur of a rock guitar or the 21-string kora. Electrification, adding assorted ngonis to his all-family band and staying open to western influences have delivered music of high class and wide appeal. Ba Power finds Kouyaté in full command, his chattering ngoni lines augmented by guest guitars (Samba Touré, Chris Brokaw), the rhythms given a rock tinge by Robert Plant’s drummer Dave Smith.
It’s been a busy couple of years for Bassekou Kouyate. 2013’s much-lauded Jama Ko prompted a series of world tours and musical collaborations, most notably with Damon Albarn’s musical mash-up, Africa Express. Its little surprise to find his sound palette expanded significantly beyond its traditional Malian roots on this latest album, his fourth.
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.