Ngoni ba – or ‘the big lute’ – is a pretty good way to describe the début album of West African Bassekou Kouyate and Mali’s first traditional lute quartet. Segu Blue is as floaty as gossamer and as strong as thin wire. The end result is captivating, the music insinuating itself beautifully.
Kouyate came to international acclaim with his work in the Symmetric Trio (with kora player Toumani Diabate) and on Ali Farka Toure’s posthumous album, Savane. But with Segu Blue it’s certain that the lutist will get some deserved limelight. Kouyate very much lets the music do the talking.
The four-stringed lute provides a taut, rippling melody throughout the album’s 14 tracks. The introductory ‘Tabali te’ is a masterly piece of scene setting: the ngoni plucks out a few notes and then, as a bass instrument thumbs out a few sounds, a sighing, sonorous choir sings out. Whatever they’re saying, there’s a palpable sense of peace about it; a contemplative attitude also pervades the lovely instrumental ‘River Tune’. Kouyate and his band, which includes singer (and wife) Ami Sacko, unleash a fluid blues on ‘Segu Blue’ and ‘Juri nani’ – both songs where the brisk percussion of fingers on sounding boards is vigorous. But it’s the ‘Lament for Ali Farka’ that’s really something else: the voice of the ngoni underpinned by a stately bass and a shrouded chorale to speed the spirit of Kouyate’s lost friend.Louise Gray