Review: Bassekou Kouyate: 'Tradition, Turmoil & Triumph'

Recorded during Mali's civil war, Jama Ko, is a record that draws on the country's rich musical traditions to give voice to those living in a world of uncertainty.
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A year ago, Islamic militants were seizing power in Northern Mali, sweeping through villages and threatening to cut of the fingers of some of the regions most renowned musicians. Meanwhile, Bassekou Kouyate was rehearsing with his band, Ngoni Ba, in his home in the capital Bamakou, dreaming of his new record, as the military was attempting to overthrow the government of president Amadou Toumani Toure. Recorded during Mali's civil war, Jama Ko, is a record that draws on the country's rich musical traditions to give voice to those living in a world of uncertainty.

A master of the Malian Ngoni (a plucked string instrument often cited as the African predecessor of the banjo), Kouyate attracted attention stateside with the 2010 release of I Speak Fula on SubPop's Next Ambiance label. Touring the world with a four-piece band of Ngoni players, Kouyate set out to prove the traditional music of Mali could rival the virtuosity and excitement of the hardest guitar-based rock. Jama Ko builds on this mission, with Kouyate and company providing lightening-fast flourishes from the first seconds of the opening, title track.

But the focus of this record is not technical theatrics; instead, Jama Ko takes on the question of what music means to Mali. Descended from a long line of musicians, Kouyate knows well the centuries-old history of Malian music, and the legendary songs of the regions musical historians--the griots. With finely honed skill and boundless courage, he sets these songs musically and lyrically in the present.

Take "Sinaly", for example. Based on a griot song praising a 19th century king who refused to be forced to convert to Islam, on the song Kouyate and guest Ngoni soloist Abou Sissoko's instruments sing with effects that sound anything but ancient. At the same time the track draws on a story from Mali's past to make a case against the coercive fundamentalism threatening Mali (and many parts of world, for that matter) today.  

The high point of the album is "Ne Me Fatigue Pas" (Don't Wear Me Out). Recorded between power outages during the coup, the track finds Kouyate attacking his Ngoni, using distortion and a wah pedal to coax a hopeful, but defiant cry from the ancient, goat-skinned instrument. 

It's not all war and tumult, though. "Madou" (modeled on a song Kouyate's father and grandfather sang) sings the praises of a local businessman who donated windows to Bamako's ngoni school. "Mali Koori" is a traditional cotton picking song set to distorted Balafon (a griot xylophone) and Ngoni; its verses written to reflect recent glimmers of hope in Malian agriculture. And longtime friend Taj Mahal joins the band on "Poye 2", singing of the ties binding the music of the griots and American bluesmen. 

While the language barrier and bold, microtone tinged melodies will challenge Western listeners, the pay-offs are huge.

Throughout the album, Kouyate draws on classic Malian music to tackle contemporary issues. And this is intentional. It underlines the fact that even as armed factions battled for the right to determine Mali's destiny, the essence of the people was where it had always been--in the stories, songs, and living rooms of the Malian people.