Review: Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba at Union Chapel

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba
(Union Chapel, Islington. 20th March 2014.Review by Alison Bentley)

It was a family affair: Malian ngoni-player Bassekou Kouyate was on stage with his wife, two sons, brother and nephew. The Kouyate family are literally born to be musicians; their musical traditions are passed down through the generations of griots, and Kouyate can trace his family back to before the time of Christ. ‘Before Christ, my fathers played for kings and queens,’ he told us. ‘You are my kings and queens tonight- I play for you.’

The dry ice billowed round their shining green tunics, the oriental arches behind the stage, and up to the Chapel’s high ceiling, with its exotic fretwork. Kouyate didn’t say very much, or introduce the tunes. He didn’t need to; we were swept along on a wave of urgent rhythms and improvisations. Ngoni Ba means ‘big ngoni’, and there were several sizes of this traditional stringed instrument in the band. Kouyate’s son Moustafa Kouyate opened with dramatic trills on his lute-like instrument, bending the notes (Kouyate later called the ngoni the ‘guitar’s grandfather and banjo’s father’). The driving beat came from the calabash drum. Kouyate’s brother slapped the huge upturned gourd with open hands, occasionally dashing a cymbal and hi hat. Son Mamadou Kouyate grooved on the larger bass ngoni, riffing powerfully on hypnotic ostinato phrases. At the sharp end of the sound, Kouyate’s nephew was on cabasa, tossing the gourd and shaking the shells with extraordinary subtlety.

Amy Sacko sang with operatic power that no recording could prepare you for, improvising around the notes in palpitating quarter tones. When Kouyate himself came on stage, a tall commanding figure, his ngoni about the size of a violin, you felt the audience’s warmth. He’s worked with so many famous names from Bonnie Raitt to Bono, and was an essential part of Ali Farka Toure’s final album. He leaned forward like a rock star, one foot on the foldback speaker, playing minor fills between Sacko’s vocal lines. His solo with wah wah pedal brought the ancient instrument into the present, sounding sometimes very traditional, sometimes like Muddy Waters.

Other pieces sounded like samba, with five voices in harmony, the textures like a fine fabric. The instrumentalists all took a solo- Kouyate leaned over each soloist’s shoulder, focusing on them with a scary intensity, calling words of encouragement and clapping them on the shoulder. At one point Kouyate and another ngoni player faced each other and traded 4s, swapping riffs in ever-increasing virtuosity. One song sounded like Flamenco, with Sacko’s impassioned melisma like the Spanish saeta, her sinuous hand gestures and throaty yells leading the ngonis in their improvisations, on a dark Phrygian scale.

Kouyate self-deprecatingly introduced a song recorded recently with blues singer Taj Mahal: ‘Taj’s voice is very good, my voice- uh-huh.’ But as this blues for Africa, as he called it, unfolded on stage, the ngoni sounded as if it was being played by John Lee Hooker. Tumbling ngoni notes became almost a Chicago blues.

Mamadou and Kouyate’s nephew’s encore on talking drums was pure theatre- hands fluttering like humming birds, dancing as they squeezed the drums to change pitch. You felt as if these drum battles had been going on for centuries- but then they drummed Happy Birthday in unison to bring everything down to earth.

Ngoni Ba’s 2013 album Jama Ko means ‘a big gathering of people’: and so it was at the gig, on stage as well as in the cheering audience. But the phrase also refers to the Malian religious tolerance Kouyate values so highly, recently undermined by a fundamentalist coup which threatened to ban music. The album was recorded to the sound of gunfire in the street. But now, he said, his country is ‘happy’- and the gig showed the power of his music to bring people together.

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