Bassekou Kouyate: Mohammed appreciated music and never dreamt of banning it


Ngoni king Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba are bringing some much-needed Malian heat -- and musical activism -- to the Cedar this Saturday. It will be almost a year to the day that Bassekou released his third studio album Jama Ko in the US, which was also around the same time that jihadi extremists tightened bans on music in Mali, and the same time he'd been playing the Sahara Soul series of Malian unity concerts in the U.K. The work that he and other Malian artists have done since then is admirable, but, as our conversation would indicate, still not over.

Bassekou and all members of Ngoni Ba (alternatively Ngoniba or Ngoni ba) come from the heavily Bambara-populated region of Ségou, about 146 miles northeast of Bamako. There, the ngoni, an oblong relative of the banjo, thrives. Famously, Kouyate formed Ngoni Ba as the first four-ngoni band, featuring the power engine voice of Amy Sacko along with percussion.

Gimme Noise caught up with Bassekou by email just before he flew out of Bamako. He spoke through a French translator about everything from the current situation in Mali to the politics of music in Islam to the possibility one day of female ngoni players.

Gimme Noise: I've heard that Jama Ko means "a big gathering" or "a big family." What is it exactly?

Bassekou Kouyate:
Literally, jama ko means "everybody's business," which comes to mean "a big meeting." It's what they tell me Americans sometimes call "a town hall meeting" where people can air their concerns about what is important to their community.

One of the main themes of the album is peace and unity. Besides the lyrics, in what way does that manifest in the album?

We've included well-known musicians from the north of Mali, particularly Madame Khaïra Arby, the great singer from Timbuktu who was forced to live in Bamako while jihadi groups occupied her town, breaking down monuments and banning any kind of music. At the time the album was recorded, we didn't know it would get so bad, but we did invite her knowing that things weren't going well in the north, as clashes between the Malian army and various jihadi groups had erupted.

So Khaïra is Songhai, and you're Bambara. What elements of music from other traditions have you included as well -- Mandinka, Fulani, Tuareg...?

Yes, certainly. We've included other types of music in all the Ngoni Ba albums, such as Mandinka music from Kassé Mady Diabaté. For a long time, nobody outside Ségou knew about our Bambara music. All people knew in Mali was Mandé music, but I think now we've changed things so that people recognize Bambara music from Ségou. Mali has such a great variety of music, and still only a part of it is known outside the country.

You've been touring extensively since Jama Ko dropped and actively advocating for peace in Mali. Do you believe that your music--along with that of your colleagues Fatoumata Diawara, Sidi Touré, Tinariwen, etc--can create actual change on a governmental level in Mali, especially in the North?

Well, everyone in Mali was shocked when the extremist groups that took power in the North for those few months attempted to ban music. But all the musicians in Mali have played their part in fighting it. Those of us who've been lucky enough to travel abroad since 2012 have talked constantly to our friends in the press about the fact that it is just not possible for Malians to live without music and that the extremists in the north must go! I think that in addition to the shock surrounding human rights abuses in northern Mali, concerns about music may explain why the world generally so supported armed efforts to push extremists out of the north.

We also encouraged religious leaders in the South to talk about the fact that the Prophet Mohammed appreciated music and never dreamt of banning it. There have been several collaborations between musicians from the North and the South to show our solidarity: Fatoumata Diawara made a wonderful production on YouTube with many of the leading musicians in Mali, and I was thrilled to support this effort. There have also been tour productions like Sahara Soul and the Festival in the Desert In Exile to show our united front.

And we have won! Music is again being played in the north of Mali and will be a part of the national effort for truth and reconciliation between the different communities.

One of the things that struck me most about Jama Ko is the fact that it's a bit more rock than your other two albums, even if the instruments are still the same. What did you do to achieve this? What inspired that decision in the first place?

What inspires me most is my family: my father Moustafa and my grandfather Bazoumana Sissoko, both of whom were famous griots in their day. They're the ones who taught me to play, and I still listen to the few recordings they left behind. My mother is a singer, and she's constantly teaching the children in the family to sing. Those traditional sounds are still the sounds I aim for, even though we've updated our instruments and have better amplification. We're also constantly practicing, rehearsing, and our band is encouraged to make their own innovations. It's this feeling of belonging to a group that's constantly trying to improve its performance, along with the enthusiastic response of our audiences, that has brought about the new rock influences in our music.

Speaking of creativity, describe a bit what you've done to create the special sound of your ngonis. I know that you've made certain modifications to the instrument.

The first really important change happened when I was quite young: it was to use a guitar strap on the ngoni in order to be able to stand up and play, so that the ngoni began to be heard as a solo instrument. Other players have also developed ngonis with more strings and different dimensions, producing a new range of sounds. We followed that trend, but the next totally original move we made was to set up a group of four differently sized ngonis, with traditional percussion, and, of course, our star vocalist, Amy Sacko. Another innovation many people have noticed because of its modern touch is our use of wah-wah pedal. But we do all this in keeping with the spirit of traditional Bambara music.

On this side of the world, we see a number of younger guitar-wielding Malian artists, but who are the young new generation of ngoni players in Mali? Are there women?

There are more and more ngoni players in Mali today, many of them not griots. Before we began Ngoni Ba, the ngoni was on its way out as an instrument; it was seen as something that your grandfather listened to. But now we have shown that it can be brought up to date, and now not a week goes by without someone asking me to listen to a new group of young ngoni players, and it's aroused interest in other traditional instruments too.

So far we don't have female ngoni players. I think it's because the traditional image of the ngoni is so closely tied to that of male players. When a man with an ngoni strapped to his back is seen walking anywhere in Mali, people know what to expect: a professional musician and a intermediary in certain family affairs, such as engagements, weddings, or even disputes, and this group of connected activities is firmly associated with male roles. Women are more likely to be seen as singers, often asked for advice by their fans about very personal questions, and this links them to their supporters. I've heard that there are some women newspaper columnists who do that in Western countries too, replying to letters from their readers.

So, no women ngoni players yet, but that may change one day. Everybody said it wouldn't be possible for a woman to play the kora in public, but now there is a well-known student of Toumani Diabaté--her name is Maïmouna N'Diaye, and she plays the kora and sings in public.

After this tour in the States, what's the plan?

First we have a European tour in March and April. Then we're beginning to think about a new album, but arrangements haven't quite been made yet, so look out for a few surprises later on this year.

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba. All Ages, $22/$25, 8 p.m., Saturday, January 25 at the Cedar. Tickets.