Monday, January 13, 2014

Bassekou Kouyate Brings Bambara Blues!

by Susan Kepecs
The first time I heard Bassekou Kouyate was on the AfroCubism album (Nonesuch 2010) – a Nick Gold-orchestrated collaboration between Malian and Cuban players that’s what was supposed to happen in Havana in 1996 instead of Buena Vista Social Club.  Visa complications led to the all-Cuban release, and, Buena Vista fan that I am, I’m glad it did.  But AfroCubism turned out to be a revelation, and I’ve been dying to catch a live performance by Kouyate – a griot and master ngoni player who’s modernized the sounds of his heritage without giving in to Afropop – ever since.  Here’s my chance.  Kouyate and his band Ngoni ba bring their Bambara blues to the Sett, under the auspices of the Wisconsin Union Theater’s World Music Stage, on Friday, Jan. 24. 
Given the current unrest in Mali, this show is reason to celebrate.  Here's why, in a nutshell: Since the fall of French colonial rule in 1960, tribal tensions have divided the country’s desert north (home of the Tuareg desert blues) from the south. In early 2012 those tensions exploded, opening the door for international jihadi extremists.  In short order the foreigners captured the entire northern region and imposed Sharia law.  Music was banned.  At the start of 2013 the coup reached the Malian capital of Bamako, in the south.  The day the fighting broke out Kouyate was in the studio recording his latest album, Jama Ko.  The French stepped in before Bamako saw much damage.  The north remains volatile, but Mali’s vibrant music scene still thrives in the south. 
The griots play a key role in this cultural survival.  Kouyate tells how in the interview, below.  Since I’m incapable of holding a real conversation in my threadbare French I sent my questions for Kouyate, via email, to Violet Diallo in Bamako, who transcribes press interviews for many Malian artists.  Email Q and A’s usually flop, but this one’s amazing.  Read on.

CulturalOyster: You come from a long line of musicians – did you ever want to do anything other than play music?

Kouyate: Yes, of course!  When I was a boy I wanted to be a footballer and now I sometimes think of returning to the village to be a farmer.  Maybe that will come later.

CulturalOyster: There’s been a lot written about the Malian griots, but your own family has lived this history – can you tell me about your family story?

Kouyate: One of the griots’ roles in our area of West Africa is to record the community’s history, and they have done this very well for hundreds of years.  It is because of this oral history that we know that my ancestor, Balla Fasséké Kouyaté, was the main counsellor and emissary of Emperor Soundiata of the Mande Empire in the thirteenth century; in other words, his spokesman and  prime minister.  Before broadcast media existed, one way of presenting the Emperor’s account of events was to sing about them, accompanied by the ngoni.
In the mid-twentieth century, historians from the Mande area called together some of the leading elderly griots and wrote down their accounts of Soundiata’s decisions, including his division of peoples’ social roles. The accounts agreed, and it is quite clear that the Kouyatés were to have the role of spokesmen for the Emperor and his descendents.
My family originates from the area near Ségou, where Soundiata’s widowed mother came from.  Soundiata’s griot came with her family.  This is a zone that has very old ties with several ethnic groups, including the Mande and the Bambara.  It explains how my family expresses itself in the Bambara music style, although we know the others.  The family has lived for centuries on the banks of the river Niger to the west of Ségou and in contact with generations of kings and other leaders of the Bambara.  Until my generation, there was no question that young men would become musicians or founé, spokesmen among griots, and this was how we would make our living, inter-marrying with other griot families.  It is why all children were taught music from a very young age and it is still completely usual for the boys to learn to play the ngoni to quite a high standard.  My sons who play with Ngoniba are a good example of how the tradition is flourishing.

CulturalOyster: Can you talk about what you’ve done to bring the ngoni tradition into the 21st century, and how your sound has changed since you started Ngoni ba in 2005?

Kouyate: There have been physical changes to the instrument; some of them began some years ago, and others I have introduced myself.  Various musicians experimented with the size and number of strings in the mid to late twentieth century. I have standardized these changes into the four sizes and ranges of ngoni that you’ll find in my band. Another manor change is to play standing up on stage, facing the audience, instead of sitting on the floor as Soundiata’s griot must have done, playing for the ears of the Emperor only.  By standing before the audience I gave the ngoni new visibility, as well as the capacity to be heard and appreciated as an instrument with star potential. This has revolutionized a wonderful traditional instrument that was about to be completely eclipsed by the guitar and other modern instruments from outside Africa.  There are now ngoni groups springing up all over Mali, inspired by these changes.
The other major change has been the use of electronics such as recording. My father would have nothing to do with it!  And I take particular care with amplification of our instruments because without a good sound engineer, nobody in a big hall would be able to hear Ngoni ba at all.  This luxury was not available to our parents, which is why Bambara music remained a cultural secret for so long.
Our sound has not really changed since we began playing in 2005: I would prefer to say it has extended its range.  We still play pieces like Poyi, for instance, an example of sixteenth century court music that has a different tone and cadence than much of the rest of our repertoire, but it still draws appreciation from our twenty-first century audiences.  Though the majority of our repertory is more popular folk music, addressed to audiences that always want to dance.  To turn our songs into modern dance music we use elaborate rhythms and some new instrumental touches – sometimes with guest players of modern and traditional instruments, but also with electronic devices like the wah-wah pedal.

CulturalOyster: Your wife is your lead singer – how did you two meet?

Kouyate: My wife, Amy Sacko, is from a griot family in northwestern Mali,  but her father became a civil servant and was sent to work in Ségou.  He knew Amy was a talented singer, and looked for other musicians in the area with whom she could work: he chose a family called Kouyaté and we met when both of us were playing and singing in Ségou.  Things went on from there and finally we came to Bamako where there were more opportunities for musicians who felt they had a future in music.  It was in Bamako that we married and set up our family.  But we still keep in close touch with my village, Garana, and have members of both families living with us.

CulturalOyster: The rest of the musicians in Ngoni ba are also related to you, aren’t they?

Kouyate: In addition to Amy our son Moustafa is part of the group, and another son, Mamadou, often plays with the band, but he will be with another, new Malian group, the Trio Da Kali, in other areas in the U.S. during the Ngoni ba tour.  He can’t be in two places at once!  The other members of the current band can all be identified by their family names as griots.  This is a fairly select group and our various families have been inter-married for generations, so we have relatives in common and if somebody wanted to work out the family trees, we could see just how closely we are all related.  In any case, we all share the same musical heritage and none of us came to Ngoni ba without detailed knowledge of our repertoire.

CulturalOyster: You’ve worked with a lot of Western musicians – how have they influenced you, and how have you influenced them?

Kouyate: It’s always a pleasure and a challenge to enter into the music of other cultures.  It is interesting that because we do not transcribe our music and rely a great deal on improvisation and following a lead musician, we probably find it easier to adapt to Western styles than our colleagues in the West who can sometimes find our complex rhythms rather baffling.
But we all appreciate each others’ music. During the last two years, Mali has had terrible problems with extremist jihadi forces led by non-Malian invaders.  But our many friends among musicians in the west have supported us generously.  For instance, Damon Albarn and African Express have invited numbers of Malian musician to play in Europe and to talk to the public about our problems as the invaders obliged people in the north to stop playing music of any sort.

CulturalOyster: In particular, what was it like working with Bela Fleck, and bringing together the ngoni and the banjo?  I ask because Mr Fleck has played often in Madison and has talked about his work with you from the stage.

Kouyate: I have learned so much from Bela and have thought a lot about the ways in which the ngoni must have been brought from Africa to America, along with the music of Ségou – my music.  Bela is a phenomenon: he can pick up and reproduce the music of another musician faster than anyone I know; he is like a machine!  But a machine with feeling and with soul!  We find it easy and natural to play together and I look forward to the next opportunity.

CulturalOyster: Your latest album, Jama Ko, was recorded last year when the coup broke out in Bamako – and despite French intervention, almost two years the conflict is ongoing.  How has this complex and violent situation affected Mali’s famous and famously diverse, music scene in general, and you in particular?

Kouyate: First I would say that the coup was a result of problems of government in the south of the country, especially problems with the Army, which left the doors open to invaders.  The jihadi entered from the north, but French intervention brought to a halt the scale and prospects of the jihadi invasion in the north, just as it looked due to move further south.  However, because of work to solve problems of government, including re-training and reorganizing the Army, a new problem of jihadi guerrilla action is still causing problems in the north, particularly in Kidal.
Apart from terrible human rights abuses in the north, one thing that particularly angered the population there was that all forms of music were banned.  This made us, the griots, responsible for denouncing the problem and we did so by speaking, singing and playing on the theme both in Mali and abroad.  There were numerous collaborations between Songhai, Tuareg and southern Malian musicians and I took part in some of them with great pleasure.  I think that in future, the population of Mali will immediately be suspicious of any group that speaks of banning music!  It has again pointed to the ancient role of the griots as spokesmen of our society.  I feel strongly that the population of Kidal is not yet free to express itself culturally, and support the pleas from the large Malian refugee population in neighbouring countries to change this situation and enable them to return home.

CulturalOyster: What does Jama Ko mean?

Kouyate: It means “everybody’s business” or a general forum, and therefore what Americans would call a town meeting, but for the whole of society.

Transcribed by Violet Diallo, Bamako January 2nd 2014.