Mali's ngoni master speaks to the world

Bassekou Kouyate put his instrument on the music map with a stunning debut album. Claire Soares catches up with him in Paris, ahead of a UK tour, to talk about his expansive follow-up
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The Independent Culture

In the dizzying whirl of feathered masks, electric-blue wigs, psychedelic catsuits and accessories of snake-like proportions, it is the man in a crisp white shirt and neatly-pressed chinos to whom your eyes are inexorably drawn. And, as the stage erupts in an explosion of carnival-esque showmanship, it is the haunting strings produced by this barely-swaying musician, unassumingly plucking lines of fishing wire, that soar above the raucous electro-punk.

Today, against the sunny façade of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, he is in concert with Ebony Bones as part of Africa Express. His previous collaborators have included Reverend and the Makers, Damon Albarn, and Franz Ferdinand. And one might argue that these cross-cultural fertilisations have allowed Bassekou Kouyate to give birth to his inner rock-child – at least as far as the full-blooded early tracks of his new album is concerned.



I speak fula is the eagerly awaited follow-up to Segu Blue, his debut international offering, which won Album of the Year at the BBC World Music awards in 2007 and catapulted the Malian musician into concert halls around the world. But Kouyate is quick to point out, in his characteristically modest way, that he in no way felt pressured to stick to the accolade-winning formula.



"This album is really very different," he explains backstage, in the Hôtel de Ville's vaulted hallways. "I made the first one so you could really hear the ngoni. It was not an instrument widely known outside West Africa so I was introducing it to people, and as such Segu Blue was what I would call a 'listening' album.



"But this time, since I'd already taken the ngoni around the world, I could do something new. The second album is more accelerated, more energetic. It's not about sitting and listening, you're supposed to move to it."



Moving with the ngoni is arguably what made Kouyate's name in his native Mali, or so the story goes. One night, sometime in the mid 1980s, he was playing with the Rail Band at the Buffet de la Gare, a celebrated nightspot inside Bamako's train station. Fed up of sitting down at the back, while the guitarists stood soaking up the limelight, he strapped the ngoni over his shoulder, strode to the front and played his solo standing up. It was a first.



While he is the latest in a long line of griots, or traditional praise-singers, for whom music is in the blood, Kouyate has always been one for pushing the boundaries. He started off at the age of 12 following faithfully in his father Moustafa's footsteps and learning to play the ngoni – a hollowed-out piece of wood with dried cowhide stretched across and four strings running the length of its fretless neck.



"I started to add more strings and my father would say: 'No, what are you doing? You can't do that, it's not a guitar'," Kouyate said. "Of course I respected tradition, the cultural heritage, but I knew it was also good to be creative. So I would politely nod in agreement with my father and add the extra strings anyway. Now I play with four but also with seven or even nine strings."



His other ground-breaking achievement was to put the ngoni player front and centre in the band, freeing him from the chains of being simply a musician for hire – although it was hardly a bad life playing with West African stars like Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté and Youssou N'Dour.



His first attempt at ngoni independence was with a 23-piece ensemble that included 17 of these Malian lutes. Today's award-winning configuration Ngoni ba (Big Ngoni) consists of a more manageable four, with vocals provided by his wife, Amy Sacko.



At the age of 43, success has come relatively late, and Kouyate is not about to forget those who championed him along the way. Chief amongst them was the now departed Malian legend, Ali Farka Touré. "He always said I had no idea what magic I could do with my left hand," the ngoni maestro remembers. It was arguably his mesmerising solos on what would turn out to be Ali Farka Touré's final album, Savane, that gave Kouyate his break. The dead bluesman's son Vieux Farka Touré brought along his father's beloved electric guitar to play on the fifth track of Kouyate's new album, "Bambugu Blues".



"His spirit was with us," says Kouyate softly. Another of his one-time paymasters, and long-time friend, makes a guest appearance on the second album. Toumani Diabaté's cascading kora can be found on "Tineni" ("Little Sardine". Some tracks are decidedly more personal. "Falani" ("Little Orphan") is the song Kouyate's mother, Yakare Damna, sang to him as a four-year-old before he was about to circumcised, out in the bush.



Other tracks on the album bring a touch of politics. "Jamana Bi Diya" ("The nation will be strong and good") sees an unlikely union of Barack Obama and Sunjata Keita, the king who founded the Malian Empire in 1235 and designated the ngoni the sole instrument to be played at his court: "Fighting destroys the nation/ Let's all be one/ Can't you see that Americans united to vote Obama into power?/ If we join hands, our country will go forwards/ Black people, white people, our ancestors came together at the time of Sunjata Keita to bring peace/ Friends who join forces will make our nation a pleasant land."



Kouyate favours traditional themes, even if he sets them to an energetic and modernised music. The frenetic title track, "I Speak Fula", offers advice to men who are in the grip of temptation: "If you can't run, you shouldn't chase after married women/ If you can't run fast and the husband catches you, you're dead".



Kouyate stays faithful to his griot heritage, as a keeper of the collective memory and community dictionary. And it is a heritage he is working hard to pass on, not only to his own offspring, but also to pupils at his music academy in Bamako. His first graduate is already playing bass in a professional band, and Kouyate is currently teaching about 20 others. His advanced class, known as Ngoni ba Junior, have already picked up gigs at some of Mali's music festivals; the younger group are mastering the basics. "You know, do-re-mi-fa-so," he explains.



"I'd like to take on more students, but it's tricky," Kouyate says. "As a griot, you don't have the right to ask to be paid but the kids have to be lodged and fed, which makes it complicated. My father taught too, but he also had fields that needed working so pupils earned their keep that way. If I can get some funding, I'd like to expand. It would be great to have 60 kids."



He could do worse than pass the donation plate around his crowd of globe-trotting pop-star friends or, indeed, the thousands of fans from all over the world gathered in the Paris sunshine, transfixed by his long, deft fingers picking out those most intricate of harmonies on the four simple strings of his beloved ngoni.





'I speak fula' is out now. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba will be touring the UK from 21 October

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