The Malian Griot in the modern era.

Article published in Think Africa Press.

The Malian Griot in the Modern Era

Interview with Malian musician, Bassekou Kouyate, at The Sugar Club, Dublin.
Bassekou Kouyate in concert, playing his ngoni. Photograph taken by Michal Jaskolski in 2009.

Dublin, Ireland:

As a big fan of Malian music, it is always a pleasure to have an opportunity to meet one of the greats. I have always been humbled by their approachability and the everyday things that they want to talk about, if given the chance. In this sense Bassekou Kouyate was no different. As he lay back in the cupped jazz club style seating of the Sugar Club in Dublin, I greeted him with my one and only Fulani word, ‘Jarama’, to which he replied in a stream of Fula.

Over the backdrop of the stage the movie ‘Dambe: The Mali Project’ was projected. The film charts the course of two Irish musicians on their voyage to the ‘Festival in the Desert’ near Timbuktu, in Northern Mali. This is the area that was subject to an aggressive Islamist takeover following the March 2012 coup d’état, which saw the overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Toure, commonly referred to as ATT. The festival has not taken place in northern Mali since January 2012 and this year was held in exile in New York, United States of America. It was clear that the silent images on the screen conjured fond memories for the highly respected ngoni-master.

The four-stringed lute that Kouyate plays, the ngoni, has roots that spread across the West African Sahel and as far North as the Gnawa in today’s Morocco, it holds many different names amongst the varying ethnic groups. Ngoni are perhaps the oldest of the griot instruments predating the Kora –-played by Toumani Diabate– and separated by lineage from the hunter or Donso n’goni -as heard in the music of Oumou Sangare. Of the differing names and varieties across West Africa the Mande ngoni is perhaps the most well-known and largest, making the name of Kouyate’s group ‘Ngoni ba’ (Big ngoni) quite fitting.

Over the past decade Mali has produced a string of famous artists including Oumou Sangare, Rokia Traore, Fatoumata Diawara and Habib Koite. Many of these artists have created a sound that blends a western backline of drum kit, bass and electric guitar with various African instruments, such as the ngoni, kamele n’goni, djembe and balafon. Many have speculated that this is the key to Malian music’s international success.

Why have you chosen to maintain a traditional line-up of instruments in ‘Ngoni Ba’?

“For me, if I can create the sound I want with the traditional instruments of Mali I will. You see we have four different size of ngoni in the group and so we can create all the sound that we need: the bass, the medium and the high end. It is good that artists are adapting the Malian sound to western instruments, but for me I want to continue the journey of the ngoni like my father and his father before, so that it can live on.”

Born into a long lineage of Griots, Kouyate has continued the family business of his father, a well-known ngoni player, and his mother, a celebrated singer. Having collaborated on projects with Mali legends Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, and international artists such as Taj Mahal (who also features on ‘Jama Ko’), Kouyate has returned his music to a family affair. Kouyate’s lead singer and wife, Amy Sacko, and himself, are now joined by his sons and a nephew also playing ngoni, and by his brother and nephew on percussion.

What is it like to travel and perform with your family?

“For me, it’s normal. I started the same way by playing with my father. After my father became sick, I continued to work with my mother and so now I work with my children, because after that there will be more grandchildren who will arrive and so it’s important that it continues, that it reproduces. It’s like this is the griot-ism.”

Are there any points where your role as a band leader and as a father conflict?

“Well I can give out to anyone. But everyone has the things that they can do, everyone has their chance in the world, everyone has their ideas and their own spirit. I give time to the ideas of everyone and everyone needs to unwind sometimes, it’s normal, it’s music.”

Later during the concert this sentiment became apparent. Several of the songs were introduced by minute-long solo intros on the varying-sized ngoni by his sons and nephew, and later with a powerful talking drum solo by his other nephew. The statement was clear: you are in the presence of many talented artists each with something to say.The new album Jama Ko’ contains powerful thoughts on the conflict that gripped Mali in early 2012. The title song of the album, means a ‘great gathering’ and was written in direct response to the March 2012 coup d’état, which saw the overthrow of Mali’s former president ATT, a long term friend and sponsor of Kouyate. The message of ‘ne me fatigue pas’ (don’t tire me out) is evident in the song and the singing of Sacko, has a tone suggesting a women who has had enough. There is an almost military driving nature to the percussion, which sets the song marching towards a very clear message for those who would destroy the nature of Mali’s long history.

But since the album was written, Mali has seen marked changes. The intervention of the French military and the commencement of the UN stabilisation force (MINUSMA) have brought a measure of stability to the North. Meanwhile, the relatively-well-received July 28th elections, which saw the election of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, commonly referred to as IBK, have fulfilled the criteria required for the release of large scale reconstruction funding, such as the €520m pledged by the European Commission.

However, recent events also saw the promotion of Coup leader Amadou Sanogo from Captain to General. This move by the outgoing interim government is seen as an appeasement measure towards the military which still holds powerful sway within Malian politics.

Do you have high hopes that IBK will be a good president?

“It’s politics, we can’t know if someone will be bad or good, but we will see.. If he is good or bad we will let him know… ha-ha.. It’s normal, he hasn’t even been invested, so we can’t grade him yet.”

How do you feel about the recent promotion from captain to general of coup leader Amadou Sanogo?

“It’s a bit bizarre. Sanogo went past colonel and commandant direct to general. It is politics and me, I don’t know politics, but I know this is not normal and all the Malians are asking “why?””

Do you feel that as a modern Griot you have a duty to comment on the social injustices that you witness?

“Yes, I have been on Malian TV many times to speak about things that have happened, bad things and what I think is good for Mali. ……. Again that’s politics, but there are some things that I will speak about. If I think it’s bad I must say “no”, but also if something is good I can say that also.”

Do you feel that the conflict has created a large rift between the South of Mali and the North, which includes a vocal Tuareg minority?

“Like everywhere there are the good and the bad amongst the Tuareg, many of them I know from the festival and they are good people. But there are many who live by conflict, if there is no war they make no money, it’s not all the Tuareg! But there are those who live with the gun, who sell drugs, who sell arms.”

Indeed, the Sahara has long been a major transit route for contrabands to Europe and more recently has increased its prominence in the transit of drugs.

“There are many Tuaregs who live in Bamako, they are born there. Also, there are many black people born in Kidal [a region in the north of the country]. Mali is for all of us. We can’t say “oh you are white”… or “you are black”… No!. We don’t need that in Mali, because in Mali we are the same family.”

As we came to the end of the interview an image of legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure came on screen.

“Look, look at Ali. He never gave up on his country. Never! [Toure became the mayor of his home town, Niafunke and invested a significant amount of his personal wealth in developing local infrastructure]… Me, I worked with Ali, we made the albums together and now some people profit by destroying his legacy when they speak badly of Mali. We mustn’t let that happen.”


About the author:

Paul McElhatton is a graduate Msc African Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.  He has been studying West African traditional music for over fourteen years including two years of field research in West Africa.  Follow him on Twitter @paul_afro