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Hitting The Rhythm Stick

Bassekou Kouyate
Photo: Judith Burrows
The ngoni is the overlooked treasure of West African musical instruments. While the kora and balafon take centre stage and the calabash, djembe and assorted other percussion instruments crack and swing to sexy effect, the simple three-to-five stringed guitar/lute just strums along, which is surely why Bassekou Kouyate has yet to become a familiar name even to those with an interest in African music. God knows, he’s played with enough members of Mali’s musical aristocracy: Toumani Diabate, Kasse Mady, Ali Farka Toure and most recently Ali’s son Vieux, to name but a few. But up until now he’s been something of a background figure, providing excellent accompaniment but never really getting his chance in the spotlight. All of this looks set to change though, thanks to Segu Blue, Bassekou’s first album as leader, released by Germany’s Out Here Records, a label previously best known for its compilations of African dance music.

Recorded in Bamako’s Studio Bogolan by producer Lucy Duran (see fR285) and mixed in London by World Circuit’s favourite engineer Jerry Boys, the album celebrates the music of the Bamana people of central Mali, who perform an earthier, bluesier style than the more prominent Maninka music made famous by Salif Keita, Toumani and the rest. Bassekou is a Bamana himself and songs from the pre-colonial era of the Bamana Empire feature prominently. But this is no straightforward history lesson, the album introduces Bassekou’s new four-piece group Ngoni Ba, a ground-breaking ensemble made up entirely of ngonis of various tones and sizes. Roots innovation at its finest then and you can tell that this is a serious world music release before you even play it, as it’s packaged in one of those World Circuit/Buena Vista-style cardboard outer sleeves.

Sadly my Travelcard won’t take me as far as the dusty streets of Bamako and so I meet with Bassekou, along with Out Here label boss Jay Rutledge, in a swanky bar on the top floor of a hotel next to Broadcasting House in central London. An incongruous place to find a rising star of African music, you might think. But, in fact, there are two of them: Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal is holding court at a nearby table; Bassekou sits calm and quiet next to the window. Bassekou has the air of gentle self-assurance that seems to come naturally with membership of the griot musician caste. He’s also a bit of a yarn spinner, as I discover once Lucy Duran rolls in a few minutes later to interpret and interrupt in about equal measures. Given her pivotal role in putting the album together, her interruptions are always very welcome. This was never going to be a simple ‘tell us about the new album’ kind of interview. Instead, Bassekou and Lucy provide me with a mix of musical, cultural and family history (which are all closely linked in Malian society anyway), stretching back to a meeting with a water spirit in the 10th century!

“The ngoni is very, very important within Malian society,” Bassekou tells me. “It is the first instrument of the griots, so ultimately the ngoni is the source of all griot melodies. If there’s something that you are unable to express in words, you can always express it through the ngoni. It’s the instrument that best solves any potential arguments, battles or fights. If you’re in a huge argument with someone, you call the griot with the ngoni and as soon as the ngoni plays, people know that it’s there to calm things down. There are even specific pieces of music for this. One is a piece called Kanjo which, if you play it on the ngoni, diffuses any potential fights. Also, you cannot do any of the life cycle ceremonies (births, circumcisions, weddings and funerals) without the ngoni. You can do them without the other instruments, but you must have the ngoni. It functions like the other griot instruments, but because it is the oldest, it has the most prestige and is the most effective. In the pre-colonial days, the king would always call on the ngoni player to settle rifts and to make announcements.”

fRom fRoots 287, May 2007


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