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Why Sub Pop’s world-music imprint will find an audience

It may never entirely shake its reputation as home of lumberjack shirts and loud guitars, but venerable Seattle label Sub Pop has added a new string to its bow – world music.

Next month sees the release of I Speak Fula, the excellent second album from Mali’s Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba. The LP, first issued on Out Here Records last Autumn, is the debut release on Next Ambiance, an imprint under the Sub Pop umbrella set up by label boss Jonathan Poneman and presenter Jon Kertzer (who helms the Best Ambiance show on Seattle-based public radio station KEXP).

Should this be a surprise? Perhaps not. This is new territory for Sub Pop, but thanks to the light-fingered, Afropop leanings of Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors – not to mention MP3 blogs like Awesome Tapes from Africa – there’s a new, young audience out there that has been exposed to non-western sounds and might want to dig a little deeper. Nor is Sub Pop the first US indie label to dabble in African sounds – Drag City’s Yaala Yaala imprint, founded in 2007, has chalked up several releases from Mali’s vibrant street-music scene, some salvaged from cassettes sold for a dollar in the Bougouni shanties.

And while I Speak Fula might not be immediately familiar to those weaned on the grizzled discontent of Nirvana and Mudhoney, Kouyate is considered something of a rebel in his homeland. A player of the ngoni, a traditional west African lute, he was the first musician to dispense with tradition and play the instrument standing up – a shock to the more conventional corners of Mali’s music scene, but now apparently pretty much de rigueur among younger bands. I Speak Fula is released through Sub Pop on 2 February