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From Mali to Romania
Innovative music percolates worldwide
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
Bassekou Kouyaté of the west African nation Mali has described himself as being “apolitical,” but during the recording of the album Jama Ko last year with his band Ngoni Ba, he couldn’t help but be affected by his country’s turbulent politics and violent conflict, driven by Muslim extremists in northern Mali. On the first day of studio recording, Mali experienced a coup d'état, throwing the nation into uncertainty with things like curfews and power outages affecting daily life, in addition to the continued offensive by the rebel troops. The attitude on much of the hour-long album Jama Ko expresses Kouyaté’s intense frustration, and the album’s title, translated as “large gathering of people,” is a call for unity in crisis. Kouyaté is a virtuoso on the ngoni—a centuries-old lute-like stringed instrument—and he plays an electric version of it here with a jaw-dropping surgical precision and an impossibly swift tempo. The epitome of Kouyaté’s mood is heard on “Ne Me Fatigue Pas” (“Don’t Wear Me Out”) which has a furious pace over relentless drum pitter-patters, with his frenzy of whirlwind acrobatic ngoni playing, just a few paces away from being full-on shredding.
Supplemented by his wife, lead singer Amy Sacko, plus his two sons, the first half of Jama Ko is marked with impassioned singing and breathtaking ngoni runs with a seemingly limitless energy and light wah-wah inflections. This writer believes that even the most jaded listeners of guitar-god pyrotechnics will be unconditionally awed by Kouyaté’s performing skills and clarity. The second half of the album changes in spirit, shifting to a more smoldering, less wild type of anger, and the vibrant track “Segu Jajiri” even demonstrates a jubilance. One diversion is the number “Pove 2,” which features the guest star Taj Mahal on vocals and electric guitar, delivering a dose of sauntering electric-blues; although it works, it seems out of place here. Nevertheless, Jama Ko is one of the most potent and impressive musical expressions of discontent this critic has heard in recent times.
The Lost Tapes
It’s odd to think that more than a decade before the overthrow and execution of Romanian President Nicolae Ceaucescu, he was actually considered one of the more popular Communist figures through the eyes of the first world, demonstrating an uncommon openness toward the U.S.A. and western Europe. Eventually, though, there was a cultural clamp-down in Romania, even with a ban on singing in English, in addition to unbearably severe austerity policies in the ’80s; however, during the years of openness, one Romanian music enthusiast Rodion Ladislau Rosca enjoyed visits to Hungary to add to his impressive record collection. This D.I.Y. sound-tech whiz also accumulated reel-to-reel tape machines and electronic sound-making devices, which he would use in his band Rodion G.A., ripe for rediscovery among western audiences thanks to this compilation of obscure and unreleased recordings.
These tracks, recorded in the late ’70s and early ’80s, bear influence from electronic pioneers such as Kraftwerk but also bring to mind various acts like Suicide, Hawkwind and TONTO’s Expanding Head Band, often using primitive-sounding artificial drum beats and a dark, pulsing synth vibe that’s seemingly a weird amalgam of post-punk, new wave, space rock and psychedelia. Only a few songs feature vocals, including the lo-fi garage rock “Disco Mania,” atypically featuring an acoustic drum kit and chipmunk-style vocals with swaggering guitar licks; synths are the dominant instruments, often sounding both sick and piercing like on “Imagini Din Vis” with envelope effects, channeling the sci-fi rock of Chrome, although wailing guitars occasionally step up alongside the synths, like on “Caravane.” The closing “In Linistea Noptil” is an outlier, featuring a maudlin tone and piano notes, slightly dialing down the synths and evoking composer Jean-Claude Vannier. The Lost Tapes features music that isn’t amorphous yet not fully baked and focused, but its dirty synth-rock aesthetic may appeal to fans of adventurous underground ‘70s music from Krautrock to electronic post-punk.