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An Interview with Bassekou Kouyate

The ngoni maestro discusses Malian music amidst the conflict in the north, and his new album, Jama Ko.
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Bassekou Kouyate playing his ngoni. Photograph by Jens Schwarz.

Bassekou Kouyate’s new album, Jama Ko, was recorded as Mali’s coup d’état erupted around him. By the evening of his first recording day, rumours had materialised into the news that President Amadou Toumani Touré had fled office.

Malians now look to cultural figures like Kouyate – famous internationally after two highly praised albums with his band Ngoni ba, frequent collaborations with kora legend Toumani Diabaté and a performance at Festival au Desert near Timbuktu – in these times of unrest. He still plays the ngoni (a stringed instrument often compared to a banjo) with the kind of vigour that led The Independent to label Ngoni ba “the best rock n roll band in the world”, but Kouyate’s music has become political by appointment of the masses.

Creating harmony

“I wrote ‘Jama Ko’ to bring peace”, Kouyate says of the album’s title track. “’Jama Ko’ means a ‘great gathering’. People shouldn’t argue and fight, they should come together and enjoy life. It doesn’t matter if you are poor or rich, Christian or Muslim, Fula or Tuareg – we can all come together and have fun.”

“At the moment the situation is really bad. Because of the fighting in the north, the government has decided to tell everyone to close the bars in Bamako and keep things quiet. Everyone is afraid of bombs. There are no jobs for musicians because there are no concerts. Weddings are not going ahead – people aren’t earning as much money and are feeling it.

“A lot of people come to me and ask for help, and I try to do what I can. Over 90% of the Malian population is Islamic, but our form of Islam here has nothing to do with a radical form of Sharia – that’s not our culture. We’ve been singing praise songs for the prophet for hundreds of years. If the Islamists stop people making music they will rip the heart out of Mali.”

I ask him how important the Festival au Desert has been in bringing Malian music to the world and whether he fears for its future after its recent closure.

“This festival is hugely important”, he replies. “To tell you the truth I already miss the desert – it was so special to play there. It allowed the world to experience Malian music in its true environment. A lot of famous musicians and producers came to the festival and helped spread our music around the world. I am confident the festival will continue after the conflict and I will do everything I can to support it.”

The ngoni and a family affair

The ngoni-driven voice of Jama Ko could be likened to the delicate licks of a flamenco guitar, urgent in today’s context yet inherently fun-loving. Lyrical themes range from recounting folk tales – a 19th century Bamana king and his resistance to Islamisation on ‘Sinaly’, Mali’s long history of cotton farming on ‘Mali Koori’ and a great Bambara warrior on ‘Segu Jajiri’ – to direct calls for peace on tracks like ‘Kele Magni’.

The album again demonstrates everything that makes Bassekou Kouyate, his band and fundamentally his instrument great Malian exports. Unique to Ngoni ba is their arrangement, which features several ngonis of varying sizes.

“The ngoni has played a huge role in my life”, continues Kouyate. “It has changed my life for the good; I can feed my family with my music. It’s also normal for music to change with time. We have an incredible tradition in Mali but the world is changing, and we must change with it. I can’t keep copying the music my great grandparents played. I have to play our music the way I feel it, in a way that people today can relate to.”

In line with much of his previous work, Bassekou Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko takes lead vocals on many of Jama Ko’s tracks. In addition, his two sons Madou and Moustafa join Ngoni ba for the first time.

“I want my kids to know what I do”, he says “and to understand how Mali brings music to the world through events like Festival au Desert. Music like this needs to be shared so it can live on. The next generation will take this music and turn it into something new again, and that will keep it alive – it can’t stop with me.”

Jama Ko also features American blues guitarist Taj Mahal, who adds an electric swagger to ‘Poye 2’ as he duets with Kouyate in both English and French.

“First of all, music knows no boundaries”, says Kouyate. “Taj knows the blues, and he knows that the blues comes from Mali. When we play together there is never any confusion. It always comes easy and we just started playing again on Jama Ko; there never was a problem in understanding each other musically.”

Jama Ko will be released by Out Here Records on 28 January.

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