Bassekou Kouyaté has arrived. Those in the know in the Malian music community have long recognized him as the most exciting and innovative ngoni player on the contemporary scene. And considering that the ngoni, a “spike lute” and an ancestor of the banjo, is one of the oldest string instruments in West Africa—far older than the kora or even the balafon—that’s serious stuff. Bassekou’s star turns with kora master Toumani Diabaté (Djelika), Ali Farka Toure (Savane) and Taj Mahal (Kulanjan) certainly won him honorable mentions. Then, with the release of Segu Blue in 2006, Bassekou claimed his place at center stage, fronting a unique band, Ngoni Ba, that builds its arrangements around four tangling ngoni parts, three of them played by the Kouyaté brothers.
I Speak Fula finds the Ngoni Ba concept matured and expanded. From the opening volleys of the first track, the ngonis blaze fast and fiery, though never more so than on “Musow (For our Women).” Bassekou does more than pay lip service to woman-power; his wife Amy Sacko is Ngoni Ba’s lead singer, and her powerful, smoky voice is a welcome presence throughout these eleven rich tracks.
This group has spectacular chemistry, but their second CD makes an admirable embrace of Malian artists and genres beyond the core ensemble, and beyond Bassekou’s Bambara griot roots. This seems to be the spirit of the title, I Speak Fula; Fula is not Bassekou’s native tongue. Zoumana Tereta, master of the horse-hair soku fiddle, sings and plays on Bassekou’s ode to his bride, “Amy.” Tereta’s voice is deliciously raw and gravelly, and his bowing deep and mystic. There are two other tracks with earthy guest vocals, the slow and mesmerizing “Bambougou Blues,” featuring the baritone rumble of Andra Kouyate, and a bonus track with Senufo hunter Dramane Ze Konate.
Moving from the earthy to the celestial, we get a heart-stopping vocal cameo from golden-throated griot star Kasse Mady Diabaté on “Jamana Be Diya,” a rendition of the griot classic “Massane Siise.” Kasse Mady’s blast of full-throttle jeliya comes halfway through the track, announced by a flurry of kora from Toumani Diabaté. Toumani also graces “Tineni,” a gentle loping song that encourages young girls to remain virgins. Perhaps it was nostalgia for his twilight sessions with Ali Farka Toure that lead Bassekou to enlist Ali’s son Vieux Farka Toure for this session. Vieux lays heavy electric guitar riffs on two tracks here, most notably the magnificent “Bambugu Blues.” All the guest appearances here come from Malians—never foreign “names”—so they completely avoid any taint of opportunism and instead convey confidence, and a refreshing sort of multi-cultural pride that may be unique to Mali. With I Speak Fula, Bassekou Kouyaté takes his place among the top tier of his country’s dazzling musical pantheon.