Plug in, crank up the volume and play the blues. It’s a simple idea that has worked for guitar greats from Muddy Waters and B.B. King onward. Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate plays the blues, but his take on the formula is rather different. His blues rise out of the Sahara, and his weapon is the ngoni, the West African lute that he calls the “Malian banjo.”
Jama Ko, his third outing with the band Ngoni Ba, was recorded against the backdrop of a military coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako, and civil unrest in the north of the country, where Islamists are trying to silence musicians. Small wonder, then, that it’s an album with a desperate edge — Kouyate using his songs to plead for peace and tolerance, and pouring every ounce of passion into his playing.
There is a driving urgency to “Ne Me Fatigue Pas” (literally “Don’t Wear Me Out”), a track that sounds as raw and gutbucket as anything to have come out of the south side of Chicago. Kouyate releases his frustrations in a breathtaking solo that spirals in intensity, distorted and utterly electrifying.
Indeed, at times Ngoni Ba sound like an African Led Zeppelin, particularly on “Mali Koori,” where Kouyate explodes like Jimmy Page, bending and sliding notes on the ngoni in a way no one has done before. It’s the band’s Dazed And Confused, a glistening slab of rocking blues that works up a heavy sweat.
The loose-limbed jam “Poye 2″ eases the pace, and connects the blues from both sides of the Atlantic by featuring US musician Taj Mahal. When they first played together on Mahal’s 1999 album with Toumani Diabate, Kulanjan, Mahal was the roots veteran and Kouyate the upstart still earning his spurs. This time they’re equals, trading vocal and instrumental lines with the ease of old friends.
Jama Ko is an album that establishes the ngoni on the international stage and Kouyate as its master. The fact that his music should resonate so easily in Western ears is the icing on the cake.