review: bassekou kouyate & ngoni ba’s ‘jama ko’ – fighting to keep making music & share their stories

May 6, 2013

Malian musician Bassekou Kouayte comes from a rich musical and storytelling history. He was born to a musician father Mustapha and mother Yagare Damba a praise singer, so it makes sense that he carries the unquestionable pedigree of African blues. He further explores the cultural shift and broadens its music as Kouyate rises among the Mali musicians alongside greats Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare and Toumani Diabate.

Review by Jon Jon Scott

On Kouyate’s third record following 2009’s Grammy-nominated Speak Fula on Out Here Records, he delves into the turbulence of the modern Islamic battles and the fight to keep making music and share their villages’ narratives through storytelling. He is perhaps the greatest proponent of ngoni, the ancient West African lute – an instrument similar to the banjo, with with 4 to 7 strings. While Kouyate plays the solos, his bandmates bring the darker strumming with intricate breaks and staccato punctuation. Mali musicians take an incredible risk simply making music. Although the country is 90% Muslim they’re not Shi’a followers. As the Tuareg uprising and the Islamists who practice Shi’a moved into their villages and started forcing obedience to their brand of strict Islamic law, they disavowed music and declared the musicians who make it unlawful.

Kouyate’s new band includes his sons Moustafa and Mamadou, the powerful vocals of his wife Amy Sacko, and a strong assist from Kasse-Mady Diabte. There is also an appearance from Taj Mahal. For Jma Ko his label Out Here Records teamed the Malian artist with rock producer Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire) and recorded in Mali and Montreal.

Jma Ko means “big gathering of the people”. The music usually accompanies important events, be it marriages or deaths. Jama Ko is also a call for unity and peace. On the opening track with its furious solos, demands for justice and support for the king who held out against the fundamentalists, “ Jama Ko” bristles along before an outburst of radiant energy. “Sinaly” with Kasse-Mady Diabate and Sacko uses the lessons from the past to confront the new troubles as they celebrate legendary fighters who resisted heavy Islamic law in the past. The cryptic “Dankou” features Zomar. “Ne Me Fatigue Pas” captures the angry reaction in the North to strict Islamic law destroying their way of life. “Kele Magni” with Timbuktu’s anti-clericalist Khaira Arby is Jam ko’s emotional peak riding Arby’s urgent invocation of peace. Both “Kensogni” and “Mali Koori” feature the gripping vocals of Zoumana Tereta. ‘Mali Koori” is a mesmerizing, almost vodoou like African waltz. The beautiful soaring vocals carry “Madou” and the spiritual calls on the mournful “Wagadou” are enchanting. There’s a youthful spirit on “Djadje” , and some nice ngoni work that resembles guitars wailing on the triumph “Segu Jairi”. The closing track “Poye 2” finds the two cultures unite as Taj Mahal brings the Delta spirit to Mali for a genuine blues trade-off of slow riffs intermingled over interwinded vocal shouts and howls.

Kouyate’s style has taken on more of the desert rock influence of Tinariwen, perhaps Africa’s heaviest band as much as its historical references. Producer Bilerman places the ngoni upfront and amplified, bringing forth the bigger sound of an huge rock record. This is the most joyful rebellion music made under tedious at best conditions. While at its essence it’s a call against intolerance and for unity, there is a an overwhelming mood of peace and uplifting spirit that prevails.