Ever since Malian ngoni master Bassekou Kouyaté brought his instrument to the forefront of our thoughts with a debut album that romped the fRoots album of the year poll, the arc of acclamation for his band has risen ever upward, backed by universally fêted powerhouse live performances.
No pressure for the second album, then. In fact, a chink of room for improvement emerged during the evolution of those concert appearances. Segu Blue’s considered approach was beguiling enough, but left a challenge for its follow-up to emulate its subtle impact but also inject some of the energy from those exhilarating concert performances.
There’s a denser feel to the production on I Speak Fula, with added depth to the bass end. And Amy Sacko’s vocals are even more sumptuously framed than before. But that live energy has been captured well, with Ngoni Ba really kicking up sparks as Bassekou’s longer, beefier solos are taken closer, but not too close, to the brink of indulgence. Add in some plugged-in wah-wah moments, a shock of electric blues from Vieux Farka Touré here and there, and a sprinkling of more reflective tracks (plus two minutes of thrillingly raw mpolon harp music by Dramane Ze Konate to round it all off) and the result is a confident step forward for the band.There are welcome repeat-guest appearances from Zoumana Tereta and Kasse Mady Diabaté, and Bassekou’s brother Andra gets to wrap his deep, atmospheric tones around another Bamana blues. But it’s the core line-up that holds sway, testament to months of on-road intra-band refinement. From the fast-paced title-track (complete with shades of the opening bar of Pinball Wizard!) to the galloping Musow and onward to live favourite Ladon, the intricate rhythmic interplay is tightly woven and anchored by the deep throb of bass ngoni and calabash with Bassekou spilling out supercharged licks between Amy’s controlled, soulful singing (still supported by double-track and the band’s prompts but also out on its cool, assured own more often than before).
Each turn of the CD reveals a new favourite, and over time the more traditional, dipped-in-blues songs gain prominence. Torin Torin splits the difference to perfection - a gorgeous inter-marriage of rolling rhythm, Amy’s honey tones and Bassekou’s extended firecracker riffs. Confirmation, if it were needed, that despite setting the bar very high from the off Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba are more than capable of filling what room for improvement remains.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine