Album Review: BKO – Djine Bora : explosive rock with Malian roots – magic direct from Bamako

The Breakdown

On ‘Djine Bora’ a BKO groove is clearly emerging, one that can retain a Malian flourish alongside more electric rock dynamics. It’s a record that finds a band bringing such connections together, recognising that this combination has real power and potential.
Bongo Joe 8.7

BKO are a band with stamina and staying power who have been needling for attention on the global beat circuit for getting on ten years. Formed in Bamako in 2012 by master percussionist Ibrahima Sarr and his then drum pupil, Frenchman Aymeric Krol, the band soon expanded to a five piece with the introduction of charismatic vocalist/Dunun player Fassara Sacko plus a couple of Ngoni musicians to widen the possibilities. With the aim of bridging the complex relationships within Malian musical traditions and from this ambitious blend present something distinct, the BKO quest began.

Two albums in and some 450 globetrotting shows later, the band mark summer 2022 with the release their third LP Djine Bora, available from 15th July via Bongo Joe records. It marks a step on from the crammed energy of 2014’s ‘Bamako Today’ and finds BKO hitting their stride with more confidence and certainty. The salvo of rhythms is still intense but this time the group explore their unique combination of ukele sized Djeli Ngoni and more hefty bass toned Donso Ngoni with a sound destination in mind. On ‘Djine Bora’ a BKO groove is clearly emerging, one that can retain a Malian flourish alongside more electric rock dynamics.

This statement vibe is out there from the get-go as Mamoutou Diabate’s FX heavy, riffing Djeli-Ngoni introduces the pent up Toumaro. The song charges forward, whipped by a blistering jazz rock friction between Krol’s drum push and Adama Coulibaly’s pulled Donso basslines. Matching some frantic wah-wah momentum, Fassara Sacko’s peerless vocal holds centre stage with strength and conviction. Like a lower register Salif Keita, here is a voice that can capture emotions, passionate, angry, forceful or forlorn, all in the course of Toumaro’s love song desperation. Sacko’s eyesight may have been lost over recent years but his presence remains almost talismanic within the band.

Such a soulful connection drifts onto the quivering Fula spirtual Ntiaro, Fassara’s expressive prayer-lines set within echoing Ngoni shapes and soothing hums from the backing voices. It’s also a track that prompts BKO to turn on the switch mid song. The increasingly fevered incantations may hint at such inclinations but the sudden shock of the band crashing into a pounding power chord stomp stays fresh with every listen.

Audacious gear shifts are intriguingly negotiated elsewhere on the album. Tounga unfolds with almost prog-like credentials, Diabate’s tumbling early music patterns getting slammed into raucous heavy rock soloing as the band hit the percussion button. Ngon almost over does it by repeating the same structural trick but the exuberant Sadiona sees BKO retrieve their ground. The song’s seamless transformation from shoulder rolling afro-latin shakedown to a wildly swirling desert rock encounter is an essential listen. Take note: Adama Coulibaly’s propulsive Ngoni lines will have bass aficionados drooling.

Other surprises ensure ‘Djine Bora’ stays vibrant and lively. The tight, tense funk of Bamako bounces along to a sixties swing and sharp chops from the irrepressible Diabate. It’s up there with the Vaudou Game’s most scorching hot steppers. Then there’s the chugging blues rock twang of BKO Kagni shot through with the raw dynamism of Sacko’s vocal that wouldn’t look out of place on a Fat Possum release.

With all this rockism on display there might have been a risk that BKO might lose their bearings on ‘Djine Bora’, focusing on crossing over rather than finding their own way. Maybe fellow Bamako rockers Songhoy Blues have been caught in that current recently but the signs are that BKO may be aware of those dangers. All through the record you sense their determination to use traditional Malian instrumentation as the basis for their high powered sound.

Negotiating this fine balance certainly pays dividends here. The melodic Maya wraps the rootsy vocal of guest Alou Sangare in a ringing Malian sway while the twin Ngoni’s remain buoyant but respectfully restrained. Further on it’s Ibrahima Sarr and Krol’s potent percussion that drives the intoxicating gnawa-like Koli through cycles of tension and onto the hustling activity of closing track Kekereke. Bristling with energy, throbbing repetitively and breathlessly maintaining its bustling street march chant, maybe this last song sees BKO looking back to the Bamako they once knew as well as forward with hope and expectation.

‘Djine Bora’ is a record that finds a band bringing such connections together and recognising that this combination has real power and potential. The title refers to ‘the appearance of the genie’. Well it’s clear from this set that some magic definitely did happen.

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