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I Speak Fula
Artist: Bassekou Kouyate / Ngoni Ba
Label: SubPop
Time: 12 Tracks / 56 mins

The Ngoni is an African instrument somewhat like an elongated lute with a thin round broomhandle neck and a harp-like sound. Bassekou Kouyate’s family band Ngoni Ba features four ngonis, two percussionists and lead vocals from his wife Amy Sacko.

Kouyate is a reformer, leading the way forward with the instrument. He has jammed with Bonnie Raitt and Bono, bringing such western influences to his music. As well as breaking with tradition by standing up to play the instrument, the band tunes each instrument differently to gain bandwidth.

This follow-up to the slower, award-winning Segu Blue deliberately emphasises the danceable side of his music. It begins at pace with the title track’s jazzy 9/8 rhythm, before slowing to a more relaxed set of songs, where the instrument’s tinkling sound comes across more clearly. The tragic blues-based "Bambugu Blues" (not unlike some of Tinariwen’s quieter pieces), "Falani" and the more frenetic "Ladon" most clearly show how westernised is the form of Malian music that Ngoni Ba play, and it is easy to hear it in terms of rhythm and lead instruments. In "Jamana Be Diya" and "Torin Torin," the ‘rhythm’ ngonis are plucked in a hypnotic cascade of acoustic sound, with the ‘lead’ instrument soloing regularly over the top.

"Falani" is the one of the most memorable tracks, like an Ali Farke Touré piece, with its slow, uncluttered bluesy rhythm; but this is a generally accessible disc throughout.

None of it is sung in English, so the words will be unimportant to many, but its themes can appeal across the world. Mali’s griots are like a mix of wise teacher and bard. With griots like Toumani Diabaté and Kasse Mady Diabaté guesting on the disc, several songs, such as __Tineni__ (virginity) and "Ladon" (raising children well), promote traditional values. The title track is essentially an anti-racism song, where the singer refuses to let tribal differences be a barrier between people; while the pro-democracy "Jamana Be Diya" is similarly about unity and peace. It name-checks Barack Obama for his unifying effect on people.

Closer to home, there are family songs. "Amy" is for his wife, while "Saro" (which features Vieux Farke Touré’s distinctive guitar) is for his youngest brother. He was knocked from his bike and died from his injuries in hospital, before his family even knew about the accident, but not before people had picked his pockets as he lay bleeding.

Amy Sacko’s performances here are striking. She has a dusky richness to her voice and she adds a strong presence, notably on __Ladon. __ Kouyate's old bandleader Toumani Diabate features on kora in two pieces, to add even more intricate string-work.

Fans of African music will need little persuading to give this a listen, while those who love plucked strings or rootsy blues should also check this out.

Download: "Jamana Be Diya," "Falani," "Ladon" "Torin Torin." 

Ngoni Ba will tour the USA from the disc’s physical release date of 2nd February, supported by Béla Fleck until 12th March.

4 Tocks Derek Walker

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