Bassekou Kouyaté is better known as the ngoni player on seminal recordings by Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Touré. Segu Blue is his assured, elegant and long overdue debut
I had the luck to see Bassekou Kouyaté up close in Mali on not one but two occasions earlier this year and I can confirm that live he is a stone cold genius on this deceptively complex instrument. Never really breaking into a sweat, in fact barely shifting his gentle grin for a moment, he will break out these terrifyingly complex solos somehow conjuring notes from God knows where. The ngoni he plays only has three strings, how he does what he does remains a total mystery.
Segu Blue was recorded in Bamako at Bogolan Studios (go and check your record collection now and if you have even the remotest interest in African music you will see how many of your records were recorded there) and its 14 songs tell the story of the Bambara empire of Segou founded at the beginning of the 18th century, one of the last great empires in Mali before the French colonisation.
This slightly scholarly approach, enhanced with a 20-page booklet, may have something to do with broadcaster and academic Lucy Durán’s involvement as producer. By way of contrast,this recording represents a departure for Out Here Records, previously associated with recording street sounds from Africa ranging from bongo flava to African reggae.
Even if Segu Blue never quite captures the excitement of seeing Bassekou play live, it works as a studio album aided and abetted by guests such as Kassemady Diabaté and Lobi Traoré as well as Bassekou’s wife Ami Sacko. Of all the collaborations, ‘Banani’ with Lobi Traoré is particularly good with its raw bluesy sound and the easy interplay between these two legendary Bambara string players.
‘Sinsani’ featuring Kassemady Diabaté is more of a traditional griot track with a deep, slowly evolving pace. Here it is the bass ngoni that anchors the sound, allowing alternately Kassemady Diabaté’s voice to soar and Bassekou Kouyaté’s ngoni to skip, twist and flutter.
The closest we get to the excitement of seeing Bassekou live is on ‘Ngoni fola’, where he hits a groove as wide as Lac Debo after the rains and as deep as a Tomboctou well in the dry season.
The album’s title track is almost a dissertation in sound of the links between the US blues and the Segu blues, a connection made the more poignant with the inclusion of ‘Lament for Ali Farka’.
Overall, this album is a grower, getting better as it goes along and with every listen. Make sure youalso see him live though if you get the chance. A tour is on the offing. More details soon.
Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni ba — Segu Blue is out 26 March 2007 on Out Here Records
Bassekou Kouyaté at Festival au Desert
Bassekou Kouyaté at Festival sur le Niger
Free MP3s at Out Here Records’ site
Bassekou Kouyaté on Myspace