Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Dec 8th 2009 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
Malian ngoni player Bassékou Kouyaté has his own theories -- primarily that he and his colleagues already have experience playing for many different cultures and tastes at home.
"Mali is a huge country and has a wide variety of music connected to specific regions or ethnic groups," he says. "Manden, Wassulu, Bobo, Songhoi, Touareg, Khassonke and, of course, Bamanan. There is also a tradition of professional music making involving education of young children in certain families and teaching by master performers who have always had a respected role in the community so that the quality of performance was assured. But above all, much of this music is itself of very high quality, so of course people here and elsewhere in the world listen, appreciate and want to dance."
It's the first aspect that comes into play -- with expanded implications -- in 'I Speak Fula,' the title song from Kouyaté's new album.
Bassékou Kouyaté, 'I Speak Fula'
"The song refers to a small event in our village that has a message for the whole world," he says, translated by culture development consultant Violet Diallo in Bamako, Mali. "Ethnic groups are very important in Africa. Everyone has heard about the Zulus in South Africa, for instance. Well, in Mali we have around 25 ethnic groups and most villages count several of these. In Garana, the village where I grew up, the most numerous were Bamanan and Fula families."
We should note here that Kouyaté is Bamanan.
"The old way was that the two families didn't intermarry. It just wasn't done. So a Bamanan farmer friend of mine, let's call him 'Traoré,' was attracted to a very pretty Fula girl from a cattle-keeping family. She didn't want to go ahead with a relationship because she knew what problems they would have and told him, 'How can we get on together? You don't even speak Fula!' He didn't agree that difference should keep people apart and his way of telling her was to say, 'Hey, just come inside the house with me and you'll soon see that I can speak Fula!'"
The divisions, he says, are the root of many problems, rivalries and conflicts over land disputes between farmers and cattle herders.
"If the ethnic groups have been prevented from intermarrying, the day somebody's cow strays into a field of corn there can be real problems."
So his friend's gesture was a profound statement for Kouyaté.
"Love can break down all the barriers," he says. "And it would be much better if we paid attention to these natural attachments rather than let yourself get drawn into conflict based on your ethnic group. That's what me mean by 'Speaking Fula' -- everybody does!"
That song in particular drew the attention of no less than Mali's Fula president, Amadou Toumani Touré, who awarded Kouyaté the Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mali when the album was released there earlier in the year. The President honored the group again when it returned from a European tour in October, greeting it at a homecoming celebration at which their London-based producer, Lucy Duran, performed a praise song for him.
"He gave a TV interview saying how glad he was to be able to meet a group of young Malians who have been successful and support Mali's image abroad," Kouyaté says proudly.
And it's that expansive embrace that he'll be bringing to his first full North America tour starting in February. The album is being released here as the debut of the new Next Ambience label, a joint venture between Seattle world-music radio host and journalist Jon Kertzer and Sub Pop Records with a digital version available now and the physical CD to be in stores in February. This comes on the heels of the European release gaining great acclaim, including being named the No. 2 world music album of 2009 in the prestigious fRoots magazine's critics poll.
With that support, Kouyaté for more than 50 North America dates starting in early February with his band Ngoni ba, a groundbreaking ensemble introduced on the 2007 album 'Segu Blue' spotlighting various versions of the ngoni (a plucked lute that's an ancestor of the banjo) and featuring the vocals of his wife, Amy Sacko. Among them are a variety of major festivals and a series of shows co-billed with American banjoist Béla Fleck, whose Grammy-nominated 'Throw Down Your Heart' explored the African roots of the instrument, with several highlights featuring collaborations with Kouyaté.
For Kouyaté, this is an opportunity to reach out beyond his own musical language.
"I'm really excited about the possibility of meeting new audiences," he says. "This can lead to things we do not even think about at the moment. And I certainly hope we can collaborate with US performers and especially rock artists. This is a style that gets me really enthusiastic and I think we could work well together. I love this kind of creativity. An American friend in the music world listened to my band for the first time in 2006 and said, 'Well, that's a rock 'n' roll band!'"
It's the same kind of responsiveness, in a way, as his friend did in regards to reaching across ethnic lines.
"Audiences everywhere need to be listened to, just like musicians," he says. "This is what I find so great about our tours. I'll never forget the very first tour we did in Europe that started with a huge street concert in Lisbon and immediately there was communication between the young audience that wanted to get up and dance and Ngoni ba trying out its sound abroad for the first time."
Lessons were learned, adjustments were made.
"Now we have quickened up our pace on most of the pieces on the new album because this is clearly what our young audiences are looking for. For the US tour, we are continuing in this style and smartening up our show with new clothes -- a great Malian designer, Kandioura Coulibaly, has offered to work on these -- and sharpening up our choreography. Basically, what we want to do is to please our audience. In the US they'll tell us how to do that. We're counting on them."
It's not like reaching across cultural lines is a new concept for him. In addition to the Fleck sessions, he's had past teaming with Taj Mahal (including some shows together in the States years ago), Bonnie Raitt and American jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater (appearing on her Mali-made 2007 album 'Red Earth'). And recently he and the band has sessions with Spanish-Colombian classical guitarist Juan-Mario Cuellar.
"I had never imagined playing 19th century Spanish concertos," Kouyaté says. "And I'm sure he had never imagined being enlisted by Ngoni ba to play our rapid variations on traditional Bamanan music!"
And he stresses that through all this, in part because of the process of collaborating, he says he's presenting something true to his culture, true to his traditions.
"We're used to musical collaborations across various styles among musicians in Mali," he says. "So this is a type of activity that is familiar to us."
And the album itself is very much tied to ancient traditions of the jeli, the musicians and storytellers who have been charged through the ages with preserving history and honoring key people and events in the culture, past and present.
"It is part of the jeli tradition to compose songs as well as perform then, to mix the old and the new," Kouyaté says. "The songs collected on the album are almost all a mixture of old music and new words, like the title song with the words describing the situation of my friend who loved the Fula girl and the music drawn from an old style called Koreduga that called on people to come and dance and enjoy themselves.
"On the other hand, 'Torin Torin' mixes old words about the progress of a victorious Bamana army enjoying their success on the way home from battle, with new music to express their pride and enjoyment. A few pieces, such as 'Bambuga Blues' and 'Senufo Hunter' are old, both the words and the music. But even more here we bring in a new title for 'Bambugu,' which actually describes the story of an emperor of Ségou who built a canal to bring water to his court so that his wife could bathe there but then is mocked by a man who said someone so ugly shouldn't be a rule, so he virtually committed suicide! And one of the pieces that is completely new is 'Moustapha,' the song about my father and how his musician's spirit continues through his children."
Ironically, perhaps, it's that last song, the one that is completely new, that ties all the other elements together and underscores the dominant theme in Kouyaté's music.
"The main message," he says. "is very typical of the traditional praise singer, that we are born to get along with each other, either by 'Speaking Fula' or dancing and enjoying ourselves, by remembering great historical figures and our own family members who really embody this value of encouraging people to live in harmony."