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Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba

plus Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal


Barbican Hall

2 July 2010






A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

This summer at the Barbican, is the appropriately named Blaze music festival, celebrating jazz, roots, rock, reggae, Latin and world music from all parts of the globe.

Supporting  Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba tonight is a performance by Balleke Sissoko & Vincent Segal. Sissoko is a Malian kora player - the kora is a 21 string harp/lute common in West Africa, it resembles a giant sitar with a bulbous bottom. The kora sits in a claw like stand and is played with thumb and index finger to produce a poly rhythmic sound.  Segal is a French Cellist who frequently plucks the strings instead of using the bow and shares Sissoko's playful, “conversational” method  of playing.  Sissoko states “Today, when we play, we understand each other without saying a word.” Tonight they perform music from their latest album Chamber Music (No Format!). The music is an impish mix of plucked notes from the harp like kora, blended with the wooden, earthy, resonance of the cello. It is an enchanting sound that brings to mind, children skipping through streets and playing in fields. Sissoko and Segal are both humbly absorbed in their music, sitting with their eyes shut, they sway in time. Segal cradles his cello as his fingers deftly pluck the strings. The instruments respond to each other and they express an ineffable tenderness through the lightness of their touch and the frolicsome quality of their sound.

Hot on the heels of a glorious gig at Glastonbury and a 3 month tour round America,  Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba are making household names for themselves, with the release of their second album I Speak Fula  (2009). They have been signed to the Sub Pop label who, usually sign rock bands. “We are their first adventure in world music”. Bassekou Kouyate declares proudly.

Tonight's headline act is the seminal Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba, a Malian group lead by the charismatic Bassekou Kouyate, a master ngoni player. The ngoni is a traditional West African instrument that is, according to Bassekou Kouyate, in one of his humorous asides, “the grandfather to the guitar”. The ngoni resembles a wooden paddle or child's cricket bat, it has no fret board and the neck is incredibly narrow; it is made out of wood with dried animal skin stretched over it. The instruments are extremely fragile and sensitive to temperature. However, in the hands of such experts they seem highly durable and versatile. The ngoni was traditionally played by Griots, West African itinerant musicians and bards.

There is a quartet of ngoni players on stage, each one a member of his family. The instruments come in a range of sizes,  with the larger ones, played by two members of the group - Moussa Bah on ngoni bass and Fousseyni Kouyate on ngoni ba, providing a similar function to a bass guitar, while the youngest member, Oumar Barou  Kouyate on ngoni, plays the equivalent of rhythm guitar and at times lead. Bassekou Kouyate, provides vocals and plays lead on the smallest ngoni, with the highest pitch. Dressed in a long gold robe, Bassekou Kouyate looks like one of the high priests of the psychedelic monks, playing his ngoni with the speed and dexterity of a man who is totally at one with his instrument.  The sound he declares is an “African Blues” and you can definitely hear the similarity between the aching guitar and jangling banjos of the Delta Blues sound that is the precursor to Rock'n Roll. At times Bassekou Kouyate's flamboyant performance truly resembles an African Jimi Hendrix, if not somewhat older, with one foot on the monitor, rocking back and forth, he even employs wah wah effects and distortion pedal to achieve the unique fusion of traditional Malian music with contemporary amplified equipment. 

The ngonis are perfectly complemented by two percussionists. Alou Coulibaly is on calebasse, a gourd that resembles the top of a giant egg. Coulibaly pounds the gourd with his fists to produce a tribal beat as he runs on the the spot behind the drum. Moussa Sissoko shakes a ball with seeds inside that resembles a conch crossed with a puffer fish that sounds similar to maracas. He alternates this with a drum slung over his shoulder that he beats with a curved stick; the speed he plays at is unbelievably fast as he kicks his feet to the side and runs up to the other performers, to play it beside them. Amy Sacko, Bassekou Kouyate's wife, provides soul shattering vocals, her voice lifting the music to another level of performance that brings the sound of the people of Mali to  a resounding climax.

Under the red, green and yellow light of the Barbican's main hall, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba create a dazzling display of showmanship; their sound always an energetic surge of Malian music that feels powerfully invigorating and fresh. Bassekou Kouyate's ngoni leads us through a tour de force of what the instrument is capable of, and it is intriguing to witness the ancient device played with the same extravagance and exuberance as an electric guitar. The performers step in time to their music, swinging left and right, creating a relaxed atmosphere on stage. Bassekou Kouyate leads the show, but is happy to share the limelight with his fellow band members as he ambles beside Oumar Barou Kouyate to exchange ngoni licks.  This is an unmissable show, free from any pretensions of pop and image, which gives us an insight into the music of Mali, whose culture is inextricably linked to music and performance. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba's ability to play these traditional Malian instruments in a contemporary way with such skill, flair and command is testament to their dedication and talent.

The fact that by the end of the gig everyone was standing, clapping and dancing along, shows just how much Western ears has been waiting for an opportunity to hear the roots of Rock and Blues that we have been listening to for the past 60 years.


Barbican Centre 
Silk Street 
London EC2Y 8DS 

Nearest tube: Barbican 

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