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Hitting The Rhythm Stick

Bassekou Kouyate
Photo: Judith Burrows
In order to make this work, Bassekou had to adapt the instruments. “The bass ngoni has an extra string on it. The original one has either three or four strings, whereas the one which my brother plays with Ngoni Ba has five.” I wondered if such instrumental innovation had any influence on the tunes that the group chose to play: “There are several pieces on the album which are based on very well-known songs in praise of either rulers or patrons of the pre-colonial era. But even though they’re well-known pieces, we’ve adapted and rearranged them and made them our own.”

These songs are very specifically rooted in the history of the Bamana Empire which lasted from 1712 to 1861. “The words have remained the most traditional aspect, we have retained those. It’s the melodies that we have changed a little bit, although not much.” “I think it’s the arrangements that have changed more than anything,” interjects Lucy.

“Everything went fine,” says Bassekou, of the recording session for the album, “the studio was great, the sound was wonderful… only Lucy was a pain in the butt!” Lucy chuckles and explains, “I was a pain in the butt because my job was to be an objective ‘outside of Mali’ pair of ears. A lot of Bassekou’s stuff was arranged in a way that was very much for a Malian audience, which is fine, but some of it was seriously over-arranged, every second had a little bridge into this and a little bridge out and I felt that was a bit too much, so I slightly unpicked it all. I went back and tried to make everything sound a little more rootsy. There was one occasion where Bassekou’s face fell and he said, ‘You’ve just unpicked an entire arrangement that I’ve been working on for the last six months!’ But it wasn’t quite true, I didn’t do that really.” To give the album the intimate feel that they were looking for, everything was recorded live. “Technically it was really difficult,” says Lucy. “All the musicians were in the same room, only the singer worked from the control room.”

Given his status as one of the most revered and powerful vocalists in the region (and I would argue, in all of Africa), Kasse Mady Diabate’s involvement in the album is a real bonus. He features on two tracks, the aforementioned Jura Nani and the praise song Sinsani. “This was the first time that he has ever performed Bamana music,” explains Bassekou. “I have performed with him many times in the past but always playing Maninka music. He is like an older brother to me. Even when I was in Garana I would hear songs on the radio which featured him singing with dance bands and I fell in love with his voice. In those days there was one national radio station ORTM and they would play a lot of different regional styles.”

fRom fRoots 287, May 2007


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