Album Review of
Ba Power

Written by Joe Ross
May 1, 2015 - 12:00am EDT
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From Mali in West Africa, Bassekou Kouyaté comes from a long line of family ngoni players stretching back many generations. Manding society (people tracing their ancestry back to the 13th-15th Century Manding Empire) has hierarchical castes, and hereditary musicians (known as jalis and whose art is called “jaliya”) marry within their caste and carry on the music. Within the jalis, we find common surnames like Kouyaté and Sacko.    

Bassekou Kouyaté professes that his family’s only mission is to play the 3-5 string oblong African lute with its skin head, and he demonstrates how folkloric traditions are both preserved and kept vibrant for the 21st Century. A Manding instrument with much history and prestige, the ngoni was used to entertain kings. Both quiet and difficult to master, it’s very popular in Mali (and Guinea) where it’s often played plugged in and amplified. Following his own muse and creating wide global appeal, visionary Kouyaté incorporates driving rhythms, intricate syncopations, powerful electrification and tasteful effects.  

The band’s instrumentation has ngonis of various sizes, as well as traditional musical gourds, shakers, drums and percussion. With Kouyaté’s lead ngoni always forefront, the danceable mix rocks with well-arranged melodic interludes of electric guitar, trumpet and keyboards. Lead vocalist Amy Sacko (Kouyaté wife) is a “jalimusolu,” a famed singer of the jalis, and her fervent lyrics are moving.  

The jalis are “praise singers,” and they make a living thanks to patrons’ generosity.  A song like “Ayé Sira Bla (Make Way)” recognizes prominent members of families who have supported Kouyaté over the years. Another song (“Te Dunia Laban (Not Forever”)) mentions many former leaders of African countries, including Modibo Keita of Mali, who supported the jalis when praise songs were sung to him. The basic treatise of this song, however, is that “He who has gold or money only reigns for a time but not forever.” To a traditional melody in “Fama Magni (The Pain of Separation),” vocalist Zoumana Tereta sings praises to Bassekou Kouyaté’s close friends he’s parted from. Other songs on the album praise women, God, true friends, community, African leaders, the Prophet Mohamed, and even a “borongoli” (a mythical person with all the qualities of a great king or leader). The album concludes with a slower and reflective “Bassekouni,” that may simply be a praise to Kouyaté’s musical mastery itself.

In November 2014, the album’s producers Chris Eckman and Stephane Grimm travelled to Bamako (the dusty, hazy capital of Mali along the Niger River) to record this band. Eckman also provides acoustic guitar or keyboards on four of the album’s tracks. Eckman is co-owner of Glitterbeat Records, founded in 2012 to release music that simultaneously embraces evolving global textures and localized traditions and roots.

The album’s title is a reference to the word “Ba” (strong or great) in central Mali’s Bambara language.  Kouyaté says the album is called “Ba Power” because of its very important and strong messages, and the fact that it’s “definitely the album with the toughest sound I’ve ever made.”

West African griot (oral historian and musician) Bassekou Kouyaté says he wants these songs to grab as many people as possible. “I think African music and culture deserve to be spread to the broadest audience possible. That is what I want to accomplish with Ba Power.” Give this impressive album a listen, and you’ll be immediately seized by the formidable music of these Mali jalis. (Joe Ross, Roots Music Report)