The Ngoni is a centuries old West African instrument, made with animal hide. It has strong links to the lute. What’s remarkable about this instrument, often used as an accompaniment for various Malian ensembles is of course it’s sound. Nothing else comes close. The texture of the strings is remarkable.
Bassekou Kouyate is a master of the instrument, a remarkable player who demonstrates a keen desire to further develop the possibilities of the instrument, amplifying it via pickups and introducing a wah wah pedal.
He’s playing with a band populated with his children and wife, with whom he shares the vocals. Immediately with those snaking blues riffs it couldn’t be anything but Malian music. You can hear links to everyone from Ali Farka Toure, Tounami Diabate, even Tinariwen in the age-old sound, yet Bassekou is very much on his own trip.
The album was made in the background to the coup in Mali, with Bassekou and his Canadian producer Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire), locked in the studio as the military took hold, contending not just the fear and uncertainty but also rolling blackouts.
It’s hard not to feel that this environment had an impact, there is urgency in the newly electrified sounds, some higher tempos, but there are also other influences. There are moments when the band locks on a groove and Bassekou leans back and unleashes an epic solo Crazy horse style solo. He plays the ngoni like no one else, with one foot in the traditions and the other influenced by the likes of Bela Fleck’s banjo dexterity. There’s even a collaboration with Taj Mahal on Jama Ko.
This is Bassekou’s third album, and it’s remarkable, turning electric and reinventing his band as an epic urgent blues jam band.