“Segu Blue” by Bassekou Kouyaté
Reviewed by Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Contributing Editor
Music is no doubt the most popular of the art forms coming out of Africa receiving any attention abroad. Few people have read African writers, seen the works of the many great African artists and filmmakers, yet African music has succeeded in seducing quite an enthusiastic audience all over the world. For this month’s music review I decided to look for an African musician who is a relative newcomer to the international World Music scene, and to my great delight I came across the music of Bassekou Kouyate from Mali.
What surprised me most was the fact that Bassekou plays an instrument virtually unknown outside of Africa. He is a virtuoso on the ngoni, an ancient type of lute common in West Africa, which he has played since he was a child. When I looked at pictures of the ngoni, I was amazed how such a tiny and crude-looking instrument could produce such an amazing sound. It is widely believed that the ngoni is the precursor of the banjo and was originally introduced to the U.S. by African slaves. But while the banjo has been modified over time, the design of the ngoni has remained unchanged for centuries.
Although Bassekou Kouyaté has only recently gained international recognition, he has been performing at international festivals since the late 1980s. He played the ngoni on the Grammy-winning album "Kulanjan" (1999) by American blues musician Taj Mahal, and he has also collaborated with several other well-known African and international musicians, such as Ali Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate, Youssou N'Dour, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. In 2003 Bassekou Kouyaté formed his first own band, and in 2007 he released his debut album “Segu Blue.” It was not until this first solo release that Bassekou was finally recognized as a mature musician in his own right and began to receive the international recognition he deserves: in 2008 Bassekou Kouayaté won the BBC World Music Award for “Album of the Year” and “African Artist of the Year.”
Bassekou’s musical style in rooted in the traditional music of Mali’s Bambara people, in particular the music of ballad singers known as “griots,” who traditionally performed songs for kings and warriors. These songs were passed on by oral tradition within a family of griots, and the music has thus survived for centuries. Bassekou belongs to such a family of griots, and he continues his family’s long tradition of musicians. The fourteen songs on “Segu Blue” are all based on or inspired by the traditional griot music from the period of the Bambara (or Bamana) empire (18th and 19th century) that stretched across a large part of what is today Mali. The music performed by the griots tells the history and legends of the Bambara people and praises kings and warriors.
What gives Bambara music its unique sound is the fact that it is based on a pentatonic scale, similar to the American blues. Several traditional percussion instruments provide the background beat, while the ngoni quartet embellishes and accompanies the songs sung by Bassekou’s wife, Amy Sacko, and backup vocals. Although based on and inspired by the music of Bassekou’s home region, “Segu Blue” is much more than a recording of traditional music from Mali. Bassekou took the musical traditions of his country in a new direction. He modified his ngoni by adding several more strings to expand the instrument’s range and musical possibilities, and his band “Ngoni Ba” includes a quartet of ngoni players, which is unusual for traditional music in Mali. This new way of presenting traditional music from Mali reveals Bassekou’s musical genius, creativity, and desire for experimentation. The album’s tracks are all recorded with acoustic instruments, which give the music great immediacy and authenticity. Producer Lucy Duran, a British researcher and expert in African music, succeeded in capturing the improvisational spirit of the music. Although the recording quality is excellent, the mixing and mastering has not smoothed out or polished over the raw quality and spontaneous character of the songs. “Segu Blue” is a great musical revelation for anyone interested in African music, and introduces listeners to an ancient musical tradition from a little-known country in Saharan Africa.
For More Information
The Album “Segu Blue” was released by “Out Here Records,” www.outhere.de.
You can watch several videos of Bassekou Kouyaté on YouTube, some of which are well-produced music videos that show scenes from his home country Mali.