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"My name is Bassekou, I am griot from the Kouyate family, the first griots. I was born in Garana, a village situated 60 km from Segou. My father played the n'goni, he was a famous griot who played for big marabouts. He would accompany my mother who was an excellent singer. My father played the n'goni every time he had the chance to but he never travelled away from Africa. He played in Burkina Faso, in Guinea, in Ivory Coast and in Sierra Leone. I was born inside the music and found the n'goni in my family. At seven I started playing and I thank my family as today I have the chance to travel the world with my n'goni". (Segou, 2006)
The sun was dawning over the waters of the river Niger when I heard for the first time the group called N'goni Ba play live at the Segou Festival in 2006. The strings of the n’goni have an ungraceful sound and for this reason, it is a very limited instrument, but disciplined under Bassekou’s fingers and his group, they manage to produce a powerful and a carrying sound, somewhere between blues, rock and the deep Malian tradition.
Bassekou Kouyate is a bamana djeli, or bambara, the malinke; the most common group in Mali. The name bambara means "the people with no God", it was given to them by the Songhai of Askia Mohammed, that starting from the XV th century, launched the diffusion of Islam in the whole region. The bambara, whose empire had its centre in Segou, on the river Niger, almost 300 km north from Bamako, remained proudly tied to their animist spirituality and resisted to the conversion to Islam until the mid 800, when the tukolor of El Hadji Omar conquered Segou and imposed their faith in Allah.
"The n'goni is a real ancient instrument and it is very important for Malian music. Since the XIII century, at the times of Soundjata Keita, up to Da Monzon, the emperor of Segou and up to Ba Bemba, king of Sikasso, Malian griots have sung accompanied by an n'goni. Malian music, one could say, comes from the n'goni. The n'goni played for kings and big marabouts, and not everyone had the chance to listen to it because the n'goni would only play for them. Therefore the n'goni music can be defined as royal.
Everybody wanted to get close to the king and his home to listen to the n'goni. So the young kids started building their own n'gonis, these are also called kamala n'goni. Also the hunters build their own n'gonis, the donso n'goni. But those are not the kings' n'goni. The djelis were the ones always close to the kings."
If the kora comes from Gambia and the balafon from Guinea, the n'goni comes from Mali. It is a three or four string lute, made of a small long pumpkin which is it's resonance box, over which is a goat skin, with a wooden handle to which strings are fixed. Originally those were made of skin and tendons but today they are in nylon. All Sahel ethnic groups have their own version of n'goni, that descends from the Arab lute and it is thought to be an ancestor of the north American banjo.
Bassekou Kouyate is one of the best n'goni players in Mali, without doubt the most famous. He can boast a long collaboration with Toumani Diabate, with whom he played since the album Djelika of his trio, which also included Keletigui Diabate's balafon. In 2005 he was amongst the co-stars of Ali Farka Toure's band, which he accompanied in tour and in recordings for Savane, his last beautiful album.
But more important is that he has revolutionized the n'goni's style, he has elevated it's role of solo instrument, he added some strings to expand its potentials, they builded n'goni's of different dimensions and the bass n'goni with its deep sound, and created together with his brothers and his wife, the singer Amy Sacko, the group named Ngoni Ba, the first of only n'gonis within the Malian music scene.
"My music is universal because in my life I have played with many people even outside Mali. I played with Taj Mahal, Bela Fleck, Carlo Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Dee Dee Bridgewater and thanks to those experiences I have learned the blues and jazz techniques. Especially the blues, which derive from our music, was really easy for me. In the beginning when Taj started off with a piece, I used to play simple traditional songs from Segou and I realized they merged perfectly well with his music. It was at that time that I understood that American blues came from my land, from Segou. But blues is the base of jazz and of the majority of black music, so it was easy for me to play a universal music. The n'goni is a small instrument but has millions of possibilities".
I speak Fula follows the road of universal music, as Bassekou defines it, the same of the well rewarded first album Segu Blue, pushing more ahead. There is no doubt that with time passing by Bassekou is redefining the style of the contemporary n'goni. Both in the arrangements and the solos that he introduces here and there, unusual harmonies and tunings that come from rock and jazz. While the other three n'gonis and the calabasse create a precise and strong groove, their leader scrambles his small lute - which when attached to a distorter, it reminds us of an electric guitar with a dry and space sound - elegantly and with nonchalance it plays pentatonic bamana riffs and malinke arpeggio, spaced out by obsessive sounds typical of blues.
Amy Sacko, his wife, has a beautiful voice which matures in time and in some songs she is able to move, like in the wonderful Mustapha, dedicated to Bassekou's father who recently passed away. But the voices of Kasse Mady Diabate and Zoumana Tereta - the violin player from Macina who sounds like a caveman - are the ones who leave a deep groove and continue to resonate in the air even once the music has turned into silence. Intense voices, like velvet the first and carved into wood the second one. Amongst the guests we also find Toumani Diabate's kora, his childhood friend Baba Sissoko on the dounoun, Haruna Samake on kamale n'goni and Vieux Farka Toure on the guitar, who enrich with different colours the blue music of Ngoni Ba.
At the end of the album, in the ghost track, we discover an amazing duet - lasting less than two minutes - between Bassekou and Damane Ze Konate, an old senoufo hunter by a sharp voice who comes from south of Mali at the border with Ivory Coast. He plays the mpolon, the senoufo hunters' n'goni, an ancient instrument - played in 1960 for Modibo Keita, first Malian president - with its mysterious powers at the Bogolan studio no one dared to touch it. More music, more magic.
1. I Speak Fula (from I Speak Fula)
2. Amy (from I Speak Fula, with Zoumana Tereta)
3. Juru Nani (from Segu Blue, with Kasse Mady Diabate)
4. Lament for Ali Farka (from Segu Blue)
5. Throw Down Your Heart (from Bela Fleck - Throw Down Your Heart. con Bassekou Kouyate e Haruna Samake)
6. Bassekou Kouyate & Baba Sissoko - Live Festival sur le Niger - 2006
Author: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
title: I Speak Fula
Label: Out|Here Records
1. I Speak Fula
2. Jamana Be Diya
3. Musow - For Our Women
4. Torin Torin
5. Bambugu Blues
12. Senufo Hunter