“The instrumental pyrotechnics never fail to amaze. But if the music astonishes with its increasing tightness, the whole visual show is joyful too . . .” —fRoots
With his captivating, utterly distinctive sound, Bassekou Kouyate and his virtuoso seven-member ensemble from Mali have been attracting glowing reviews and ecstatic audience response in West Africa, at European festivals, and from the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Bono. The hypnotic music the ngoni players coax from their simple, four-stringed instruments is extraordinary; their intricately woven lines, crisp bluesy riffs, funky ostinato patterns, and wild rocking solos are all topped by gorgeous melodies sung by Kouyate’s wife, Ami Sacko, known as “the Tina Turner of Mali.” Having revolutionized ngoni-playing in his own country, Kouyate has since branched out into collaborations with Western artists such as Taj Mahal and Bela Fleck. I Speak Fula, their highly anticipated second CD was recently released on Sub Pop. Walker Art Center and the Cedar Cultural Center present
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
at the Cedar Cultural Center on Saturday, April 10, at 8 pm, in an all standing, clublike setting. The Cedar Cultural Center is located at 416 Cedar Avenue South in Minneapolis.
It is no coincidence that Kouyate’s music has so elegantly merged with blues-based music, which has its roots in West Africa, particularly around the Sahel region of modern day Mali. This sonic link became clear to Kouyate in 1990, when a friend who went to Mali in search of the origins of the blues, invited the ngoni virtuoso to play with noted American bluesman Taj Mahal. “I didn’t even know who Taj Mahal was,” Kouyate recalls, “and we had no language but music to communicate. He began playing and I joined in. When we stopped, Taj said: ‘So you already know the blues!’ but it was the first time I had ever heard blues. I was just playing my Ségu (home village) style, and it is the same music.”
Before this meeting, Kouyate had rarely heard music from outside Mali. Born into a family of famous griot musicians, he was steeped in the traditions of his local village, learning to sing its history. “My diet was all live griot music from the Bambara tradition,” he says. “When I was growing up it was rare to hear a radio, and in any case the only station that reached the village was Radio Mali, and they had no funds for, or interest in, playing music from outside Mali.” After his father’s passing, Koyoute moved to the regional capital Segu and began to accompany many talented singers, including Ami Sacko who later became his wife and is a vocalist in Ngoni Ba. Subsequently, in the mid-’80s Kouyate moved to Bamako where he began playing with kora (21-stringed African harp) master Toumani Diabate. Their deep musical and personal bonds, which have matured over the past two decades through the course of more than eight previous albums together, can be heard on Ngoni Ba’s latest recording, as Diabate adds to the polyrhythmic percussive plucking on several songs.
By popularizing the ngoni, Koyoute has become its savior. No longer relegated to the courts of elite rulers, it has become everyone’s instrument. Over the past two decades Kouyate has revived interests in the ancient ngoni by placing it in new and invigorating musical settings. After playing with Taj Mahal, Kouyate collaborated with fellow Malian musicians to create a jazz-inspired instrumental trio, in addition to participating in a number of projects that fuse ngoni traditions with global popular music: jam sessions with Bonnie Raitt and Bono, as well as the studio sessions of the late great Ali Farka Toure’s last album, Savane, and on Youssou N’Dour’s most recent recording, Rokku mi Rokka. Such directions have, as Kouyate says, “created quite a stir among traditional ngoni musicians. They began to feel that their instrument was being brought back to life. It was quite possible that the ngoni would have eventually died out, being seen as antique and only fit for museums.” Whereas before Kouyate, young musicians in Mali were primarily interested in playing guitar, this modern griot has inspired this country’s youth to re-discover the ngoni. Bamako is now home to over a hundred ngoni ensembles. With these developments in mind, Kouyate recalls, “it was one older ngoni player, Sory Kane, that said to me: ‘You’ve saved the ngoni!’”
Tickets to Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba are $30 ($25 Walker members); $35 ($30) day of show and are available at walkerart.org/tickets or by calling 612.375.7600.