Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba at the Barbican, 02/07/10

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba

At one point during the set of the Malian griot Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba, Kouyate – who played at the Glastonbury festival last week – held his instrument up towards the mic. “This is a ngoni”, he told us. “It is not a guitar”. And despite the obvious differences – the ngoni is a four stringed cricket bat-shaped instrument made of wood and goat skin; the guitar, well, isn’t – it was a point worth making. This was a show which constituted approximately 75% ngoni soloing. And not just soloing – but proper foot on the monitor, head tossed back to the roof style soloing, with Kouyate even playing his instrument through a wah-wah pedal.

Before that extravagant display came something much more sedate. The kora player Ballaké Sissoko (who has collaborated with the great Toumani Diabate) played a set with the French cellist Vincent Segal (who has collaborated with, er, Sting). It began with Sissoko spinning lines, humming and groaning along as he did, before being joined by the hum and groan of Segal’s cello. Despite the different musical heritage of their instruments, the set worked mainly due to Segal’s reluctance to deploy anything of a traditional classical nature in his playing – focusing instead on sounds, tapping and slapping at his instrument, and using, where necessary, non-Western scales. The miles between the instruments’ respective origins were driven down to nil during some delightful call and response sections, the musicians delicately and intricately working up a long, conversational melody.

We should have known what was about to come when Bassekou Kouyate’s set started with him playing a solo from the wings of the stage. He barely stopped over the next couple of hours. As well as his wife, the vocalist Amy Sacko, Kouyate was joined by three other ngoni players (Kouyate and one other on the smaller, higher-pitched version, two on the larger bass form), and two infectiously happy percussionists (one on calebash, the other relentlessly shaking stuff and dancing). The song structures of last year’s I Speak Fula album, were quickly dispensed with after a mere verse from Sacko, in favour of some incendiary musicianship. Over backdrops which varied from gritty desert blues to scratchy afro-funk, one by one, the ngoni players would step forward to tear off solos which built from simple phrases and ideas to wild, dense flurries of notes. When one of his proteges played, Kouyate would stand next to them, nodding approval, raising an eyebrow in mock “how did they do THAT?” surprise. But when he played himself, it was even more outrageous and decidely unconventional, plugging in and stamping on pedals, as if someone had called him “the Hendrix of the Ngoni”, and he’d decided to take them at their word. Despite all being seriously good musicians, there was a playfulness of mood which meant this was never less than thoroughly entertaining; the show ended with each ngoni player taking their wildest solo of the night, before being chased into the wings by the others. And to think that there were people at Glastonbury last weekend watching bands with guitars instead of this…


2 thoughts on “Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba at the Barbican, 02/07/10

  1. was in barbican last night for dave holland+pepe habichuela, barbican has the worst sound engineer……….

    are you going to the oto sun ra arkestra gig tonight?

    was in morocco again a few weeks ago for their world music festival, well worth the effort…

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