Bassekou Kouyate’s heavy mustard-yellow robes over a Shaft-style long leather jacket make his entrance regally impressive, even before he starts to pull improbably rich sounds from a cricket bat-resembling ngoni.
Knowing his home Mali for its music first, such proudly dazzling clothes added to my impression of a royal musical nation. Discovering its extreme poverty later was a shock, though nothing compared to the seismic body-blows tearing Mali from every side since 2012.
The bill Kouyate and his Ngoni Ba band headline tonight over Songhoi folk singer Sidi Toure and Touareg desert blues band Tamikrest attempts musical unity and protest. Toure’s home city Gao has been bombed and he’s in exile as are Tamikrest, artistic refugees from a fundamentalist jihad which has typically targeted a richly musical Muslim country with a ferocity the West is spared. Kouyate’s new album Jama Ko was begun with the sounds of a military coup outside the studio, contributing to its urgent, troubled atmosphere.
Kouyate, Toure and Tamikrest singer-guitarist Ousmane AG Mossa open the show together. Then Toure takes over, his voice still and calm at the centre of rattles and rumbles from a calabash and staccato plucks of an ngoni, a quiet polyrhythmic storm.
It’s a Francophone evening, but Toure’s meaning is clear as he mildly derides colourful Western classifications of Malian sounds - “Desert Blues, Niger Blues, Voodoo Blues - ohh la la!” - sketching a happier Atlantic trade which includes John Lee Hooker and loops back to blues base in “Afrique, Mali”. Tamikrest follow, steamhammer funk and wah-wah guitar accenting trance blues which never quite deranges as it might.
The unanswered ululations of female singer Wonou Walet Sidadi point out one enduring problem: the passive response of the arts centre crowd which happily supports but only timidly engages with music which, as Kouyate’s wife and vocalist Amy Sacko’s gently sensual movements show, is danceable and communal.
Kouyate’s second-half performance sees him plant a foot on the monitors for a forceful but unaggressive solo, leading his band of egoless ngoni virtuosos. Sacko, her voice and movements a female rebuff to fundamentalism, tag-teams with her husband. His frustrated incomprehension at the affronts to his country crashes through language barriers. Elbowing sweat from his brow, he finally loosens the crowd up. All three bands finish together in a Marc Bolan-style boogie, a scene making its own statement.