This is the fifth album by the Malian greats since their stunning debut Segu Blue in 2006. Each album shows a development on the previous one but this one more than others.
Whether it is the recording or different pick-up systems, the ngonis sound brighter and sharper than on their previous albums and more capable of tonal variety. Bassekou playing bottleneck slide ngoni (on Weli Ni) is just one of the innovations.
Another change is in his voice production, which is more mellow overall at the same time as being more engaging. There is perhaps less of the wonderful voice of his wife Amy Sacko this time but when we hear it, she really makes her mark. Her singing of the last song Yakare helps to make it the outstanding track.
Featuring guests on some individual tracks adds a great deal including rhythmic variety, particularly where they are joined by the award-winning Cuban Madera Limpia to create some exciting Afro-Cuban music and take the ngoni into a new area.
There is more novelty in that two percussionists are present throughout: Moctar Kouyaté offers a great variety of clicking sounds on the calabash and Mahamadou Tounkara plays different hand drums. They make the overall sound slightly heavier but enhance it.
Clearly this has been a big production job with little bits added by people Bassekou has worked with over the years. Kanto Kalena comes over as a classic Manding piece and is a vehicle for the intimate and relaxed voice of one of Mali’s great veterans Habib Koite.
A very carefully and expensively produced album, it would seem to be aimed at a wider audience than their previous fan base, but there is nothing to suggest that Bassekou is turning his back on his roots. What we have here is a great artist expanding the possibilities of his genre.
All the songs were written by Bassekou and in the excellent 16-page booklet we are offered a synopsis and background to each of the songs – lots of environmental and political concerns – as well as arresting photos. This was the first album to be reviewed here in 2019 and it will be difficult to find another as good this year.