When it comes to interpreting traditional forms of “world music” (a wonderfully vague marketing term), there is the staid musicologist route, which puts a “tradition” under a microscope thereby sucking anything fun out of it. Then there’s the approach of bringing progressive sensibilities to bear, embracing tradition while not being constrained by it.
Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba from Mali reflect the latter, injecting improvisation and rock ‘n’ roll energy (though not r&r content) to the fore. Kouyati’s style is similar to father-and-son Malians Ali and Vieux Farka Toure, but less bluesy in tone. And rather than guitar, the lead axe is the ngoni (ancestor to the banjo, btw). Ngoni Ba features four ngonis, their sparkling harp-like tones suggesting Indian raga one moment, American bluegrass the next. While the songs are out of the Malian griot tradition, Kouyate speeds up long-standing tempos a notch or two, bringing forth (via both percussion and ngoni) an infectious danceable groove. The playing is intricate, but never for its own sake. The ambience is ebullient, the vocal harmonies (featuring Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko) both soulfully plaintive and soothing.
And, dig this, indie rock devotees — I Speak Fula sees its American release on the iconic Sub Pop label. (Next Ambiance/Sub Pop)