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Malian Bandleader Bassekou Kouyate Merges Rock And Soul In 'Ba Power'


This is FRESH AIR. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of the latest release from Bassekou Kouyate, a veteran bandleader and musician from Mali. Milo says rock and soul come together on his band's fourth album "Ba Power."


NGONI BA: (Singing in foreign language).

MILO MILES, BYLINE: This song "Waati" by Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba warns, be prepared, there is a time for everything. And, I would add, not always the time you expect. The cliche structure of a popular musician's career has the start filled with wild and noisy recordings that overtime settle down, mature and become more reflective. That has not been the case with Mali's Bassekou Kouyate. Born in 1966, Kouyate comes from a venerable line of musicians called griots, a cultural tradition in which the men play the lute-like ngoni and the women do the singing. Kouyate was enough of a prodigy among his many brothers that he had trouble tearing himself away from soccer to discipline himself with practice sessions. But eventually, he helped revolutionize the place of his instrument in Malian music. As Kouyate played alongside older masters such as Toumani Diabate, Ali Farka Toure and Taj Mahal, he gradually formulated the idea for a group with multiple ngonis using amplification and wah-wah pedals with added drums and percussion and, of course, the penetrating vocals of his wife, Ami Sacko. This became the band Ngoni Ba, and their fourth album "Ba Power" finally breaks fully into the territory Kouyate envisioned with fierce tracks like this which translates as beware.


NGONI BA: (Singing in foreign language).

MILES: In one way, this is an old story with electricity giving traditional instruments more punch and modernity. But Kouyate has gotten his ngonis to rock out in their own language. He's uncovered a sound. Other bright, musical ideas spread all over "Ba Power." Two tracks reworked traditional grito praise songs, a form that offers tributes to friends, patrons, mentors, relatives and ancestors and can seem opaque unless, presumably, you are the target of the praise. Kouyate's arrangements here feature instrumental breaks that don't extend the soothing mood but rip right into the proceedings, making a song suggest praise jams. One surprise bonus is a stretch of dreamy but slightly caustic trumpet and keyboards from experimental rock veteran Jon Hassell.


NGONI BA: (Singing in a foreign language).

MILES: Not all of the outstanding passages on "Ba Power" bristle or growl. The final song, which translates as not forever, mixes Ami Sacko's voice and the ngoni at its most finger-picking lyrical into a workout that is the most satisfying sort of catchy.


NGONI BA: (Singing in a foreign language).

MILES: "Not Forever" has a more melancholy, thoughtful message than the music might suggest. A theme that runs through "Ba Power" is the restless movement of time and the transience of all human conditions. This applies to the tensions of war and ethnic rivalries, the loneliness of being removed from friends and family, whether by distance or death. And "Not Forever" offers a reminder that no rich and powerful leader, benevolent or otherwise, can rule forever and that people must be prepared for such transitions. My favorite line in this fierce and philosophical album is, even if you rule for a hundred years or a hundred days, one day you will leave. Life is like that.

GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed "Ba Power" on the Glitterbeat label. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about dealing with severe depression during pregnancy, the risks of staying on antidepressants and the risks of stopping. My guest will be Andrew Solomon who wrote about this in Sunday's New York Times magazine. There's a new edition of his National Book Award winning book about depression, "The Noonday Demon," with a new chapter describing the latest treatments for depression which we'll talk about, too. Join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Milo Miles is Fresh Air's world-music and American-roots music critic. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix.