is the third album by Malian ngoni master Bassekou Kouyaté and his “ngoni band”. It is as it sounds: an African album, written and performed by African people, and thus one that may appear ripe for interpretation by those of us who prefer our music Western (or, at the very least, haven’t been exposed to divergent pathways). For many of us, this will be the type of album that comes packaged with a few perfunctory Wikpedia searches--where is Mali, again? What's that Tuareg-Islamist war all about? Is this "highlife" or "Afrobeat" or what? I’m not attacking this method of understanding, necessarily; the further a culture is or seems to be from our own, the more context we might need to understand how a piece of art from that culture fits into its creative environment. Indeed, Jama Ko
ostensibly invites discussion of everything except
the music contained within, its lyrics chastising Mali’s fundamentalist Islamists and praising the recently deposed Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré.
But what’s important about these pieces in the context of this album is the aesthetic power they lend to these great songs. This album is strong, limber African folk throughout, but its best moments tap into an energy--whether political or personal--that transcends cultural barriers. “Wagadou,” dank, creepy, and one of the greatest songs of the year thus far, is apparently based on a traditional melody but feels thoroughly modern. Bolstered by whistles, snaps, and some well-placed shaker, Kouyaté’s wife and musical partner Amy Sacko yelps, gushes, and crows her way to kingdom come. The result is propulsive in the best way, Sacko’s brilliant voice pushing against a seemingly incongruent backdrop--its effect is positively universal even when its context seems culturally specific. The same can be said of “Mali Koori,” another slow-moving, groovy track that kicks into gear when Kouyaté absolutely rips
it on his ngoni about five minutes in.
These two tracks are the most beguiling, but they indicate the album’s qualities as a whole--warm, deeply catchy, and made by some of the most talented musicians you’re likely find on either of the Earth’s hemispheres. Insofar as it is “political music” at all (a little hard to discern for most of us, as the album is sung in Fula--you know the one), Jama Ko
is, for twelve of its thirteen songs, political in the best way, using a deeply focused aesthetic both to engage with and as a momentary escape from the social environment which produced it. And just in case that isn't enough, the thirteenth song is a blistering six minute blues jam with Taj Mahal.