Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba at The Great Hall
28 November 2011 No Comments
The Great Hall, Toronto
November 27, 2011
Presented by Batuki Music Society
By Anya Wassenberg
He begins to play from off stage and people stream in from all corners of the room to crowd the huge dance floor, entranced. In the hands of Bassekou Kouyate, the four-stringed ngoni can sing like a harp or wail like an electric guitar; slow and bluesy or lightning quick.
The band comes on stage, weaving together the sound of four of the traditional ngoni instruments along with calabash, percussion and powerful vocals from Amy Sacko into compelling and hypnotic music and the cavernous Great Hall fills up quickly with dancing bodies.
Born into the griot (or musical) tradition in a small village in Mali, Bassekou’s father and older brother were adept ngoni players. His career began in earnest after moving to Bamako at the age of 19 and meeting the young Toumani Diabaté. They made their first recordings together. Along with learning to play the ngoni like it was part of him, he brought the instrument which traditionally took a secondary role out front and created the band as it exists today to showcase its bright sound and flexible playing style.
He’s played with many other musicians, including American banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. The ngoni is the banjo’s ancient African cousin, and Bassekou is one of the collaborators on the Throw Down Your Heart project, Béla’s search for the banjo’s roots in Africa. Bassekou Kouyate’s latest CD, the highly regarded I Speak Fula was released in 2008.
On stage, he’s an engaging and down to earth presence, focused on the music and connected with the crowd despite his apology for a lack of English vocabulary.
He played a generous 90-minute set without a break, and each member of the band had a chance at the spotlight including Amy, (also his wife,) who impressed with a display of vocal agility and expressiveness. The songs range from blues syncopations – and he makes sure we know it’s West African blues – to an insistent and rapid fire pace, and many tunes would be at home in any contemporary jazz set list. As Bassekou played a solo, the other three ngoni players picked out harmonic counterpoints, the beauty of the music always at the forefront. It’s never about technique for its own sake.
The opening act, Toronto-based Daniel Nebiat, hails from the east side of the continent in Eritrea, but what he shares with Kouyate is an innovative affection for traditional instrumentation. He’s been playing the traditional krar – a five or six stringed harp-like instrument that dates from ancient times – since he was a child. The songs, mainly from his 2008 release Hakimey, which features both original songs and traditional Eritrean music and is sung in Tigrinya, drew the crowd in to the dance floor within the first few bars.
He’s added innovations to the instrument like electronic pick-ups, and the sound comes in somewhere between that of the harp, guitar and mandolin. He plays it rhythmically, accompanied by keyboards, drum machine and a bassist. It was a surprisingly full sound that adds a danceable groove to the traditional melodic and rhythmic elements.
Bassekou Kouyate and Daniel Nebiat both use a love of tradition as a springboard for bringing those traditions into the modern musical world in a way that doesn’t need the boundaries of geography to explain it. From West Africa or the Horn, in Tigrinya, Fula or French, none of the distinctions seemed to matter to the dancing and satisfied crowd.