"African ‘blues’ artist coming to Troy"

Date published: 03/18/2010
Publication: Troy Record

By Don Wilcock

Bassekou KouyateTwo days before he plays Carnegie Hall and a week after doing several
dates with renowned banjo player Bela Fleck’s Africa Project, African
artist Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba will play Troy’s
Sanctuary for Independent Media next Wednesday, March 24.

Bassekou plays an ngoni, a small stringed instrument that is an
ancestor of the banjo. The ngoni was the instrument of choice for the
griots (teachers) of Malli since ancient times and was threatened with
extinction until Bassekou stood up, put a strap on it and began
playing it with the same abandon as an American rocker.

His innovative updating of this instrument can be heard on his Speak
Fula CD just released by SubPop, the label that introduced Nirvana,
Soundgarden and Mudhoney to the world.

Bassekou is a world music darling who has jammed with Bono from U2,
Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal. This unusual date at the intimate
Sanctuary in Troy is part of a 47-date North American tour running
through April.

The following question and answer session was done by e-mail and
translated by Violet Diallo.

Q. If Africans had come to the United States as free people, do you
think African- American blues today would sound more like your music?

“Actually, I think African-American blues today sounds exactly like
our music from Segu. Maybe if the original Malians who came to the
United States had been free, they would have come to find us in Africa
much earlier, but all that sounds like a film. We just don’t know!”

Q. What was your motivation to modernize your playing of the ngoni —
to reach a broader audience, to satisfy your creative muse, to save
the ngoni from becoming an archival music, or all of the above?

“That’s right, all of these reasons, but basically to show how alive
the ngoni is and how it communicates with people.”

Q. Were you shocked at how easy it was for you to jam with Taj Mahal
even though you’d never heard blues before?

“I wasn’t shocked because what I heard Taj play was my own Bamana
music: I think he was the one that was shocked once he realized I had
never been exposed to the blues before and was the living proof of the
real roots of the blues in Africa, and in Mali.”

Q. What was the crowd reaction the first time you put a strap on your
ngoni and stepped to the front of the stage? Did it take a while for
fans in your country to accept your new style?

“It was a sensation, but a small sensation because it was just one
venue (the Buffet Hotel de la Gare in Bamako with a maximum of 100
people present). But apart from making musical sense, it gave people
something to talk about – a bit of gossip. And that’s what we all love
in Mali.”

Q. Did you get the idea for your double picking technique from artists
like Merle Travis? Have you listened to blues slide players like
Elmore James and Son House for inspiration?

“I was old enough when I started to play in public to be really
well-grounded in Bamana music, and although I can play with artists
from other styles, I get enough ideas for myself without needing to
pick other people’s ideas. That way I can just sit and enjoy listening
to all these great American blues players.”

Q. How important do you think the basically oral tradition of the
“griot” was in preserving the thread of African culture in the
oppressive environment of slavery in the United Sates that prevented
slaves from communicating in groups, prevented them from learning to
read, prevented them from having instruments?

“It’s not just the griots who have a hold on oral tradition in Africa:
one of the jobs of all grandmothers, for instance, is to tell her
grandchildren stories, the same stories she heard from her own
grandmother. So it seems quite normal to me that the Africans who were
brought to the United States from all over the continent put together
the traditions they had grown up with.

“Just as the Ghanaian folk stories survived in America, there must
have been groups of griots from the Mande area who managed to stay
together and taught other young African Americans how to use their
musical style as the perfect way to express their feelings about the
terrible situation they were living in.”

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