Bassekou Kouyate Interview
photo: Thomas Dorn
In this month's issue of Exclaim I wrote about ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate. His recent album I Speak Fula is a joy to behold, and he's about to undertake a major tour through North America (with only one Canadian date scheduled so far, I believe).
Thanks to his manager, Violet Diallo, I was able to send some questions to him in French, and she transcribed his answers. A few quotes appear in the story, but here's the whole interview. It wasn't intended as a conversation, rather I wanted to ask him questions about the state of Malian music, its infrastructure, and how he fits into it - not to mention his views on the international perception of his music.
Were you mindful that this disc would be the most important in your career thus far? Did you feel pressure? Was the recording process the same as always or was it more complicated?
Yes I was aware. Our first album (Segu Blue, Out Here Records 2007) laid the groundwork for raising awareness of the sound of the ngoni in Africa and elsewhere, which was little heard before then. After that, and a tour that started in Portugal in 2006, people caught on to the ngoni and now with this second album, it’s up to us to showcase how the ngoni can link traditional music to modern sounds, and be danceable ! I Speak Fula was therefore a big challenge. I definitely felt it. But we are all professionals who have been playing this music since childhood: the challenge was also a pleasure.
The recording process was normal with producers and guests who knew the music like we did: people like Toumani Diabate, Zou Tereta, Kasse Mady Diabate and Vieux Farka Toure. It was the same studio where (the previous album was made) – Studio Bogolan in Bamako - with the same producers and engineers. I don’t think it was any more expensive than last time. All the same, there was a tense period around the end of the recording process and the mixing sessions in England, and the release date in September 2009. We held our breath, but mercifully, critics were even more enthusiastic than they were for Segu Blue. We thank the public who took the time to get used to our music.
Do you think more people are aware of Malian music these days?
I think so, there’s such a huge richness of Malian music. Before Ngoni Ba, the ngoni music of the Bamana people was little known. There are still musical discoveries to be made about this country!
In Bamako, there’s a good deal of hip hop and rap – do you listen? Is it much of an influence on the city (and the country’s) music? What about your own music?
Yes, like everywhere, it’s the music of youth, and more than 50% of the population is younger than 24. Sure, I listen to it sometimes, just as the youth listen to Ngoni Ba. It’s clear that this music is everywhere in the city and inspires youth, and even very good musicians, to play. But to say that it influences the country’s music, I don’t think so, because we know and love our own styles too much.
During the 80s, Malian musicians traveled to Ivory Coast or Paris to record or tour – is it still like that?
Some still go to Ivory Coast, Paris or London, but we have many good studios in Bamako – Bogolan, Sedona, etc. What’s changed now is that with the internet, we can change the results of recordings once there are parts that are too tricky to finish. We can work in synergy with specialized studios in Europe and North America.
Do Europeans and Africans react differently to your music?
Yes! Africans throughout the west and centre (of Africa) know different styles of music. Once one plays "Jonkoloni" or "Jaro", for example, the Malians understand it all, and are connoisseurs of our way of treating these songs. On the other hand, Europeans or North Americans generally don’t know our music, and it takes a little time to react to the same songs. We had the chance to play Zanzibar and that was interesting because East African folks had a hard time figuring out Ngoni Ba because it was African, but not their tradition. But everybody loves music.
You seem to want to make an impression on rock audiences. Is that why you added the wah pedal to your setup?
I noticed during Ngoni Ba’s first tour that kids enjoy dancing, what better to dance to than rock and roll? I added the wah wah pedals to get into that ambience! But not on every song, and we are always holding on to traditional music, even if it’s got modern lyrics.
You are part of a griot family, how do you balance playing traditional songs and styles with innovation? It seems to me that most of the reaction has been positive, have you ever faced criticism?
My father was an innovator; he introduced a four-stringed ngoni and more, but remained a leading figure of Bamana traditional music. I’ve also experimented with innovations, such as picking the ngoni up instead of resting it on the ground, but I’ve stayed anchored in Malian music. It’s therefore a family affair and poses no problems for me.
In fact, I’ve never heard any criticism or a less than positive reaction about these innovations! The old griots, the guardians of our ngoni instrumental tradition, congratulated me for drawing attention to this music which was slowly dying. It would be interesting to talk about this with critics – I’d very much like to meet some!
In North America, we tend to hear a lot about musicians who are griots. Are there famous Malian musicians who aren’t griots? Is it more difficult for them to find success?
Yes there are certainly some major Malian musicians who aren’t griots: Fula singer Saly Sidibe, and big stars like Salif Keita and Oumou Sangare. At first they faced difficulties because for the Malian public, anybody who sings in public is marked as a griot, and it wasn’t cool when the family name showed that they weren’t. The solution was to adopt the term artist which legitimized a singer’s career
But it’s still not acceptable for non-griots to sing the sacred music of these families in public gatherings or in (non-griot) family ceremonies. That is the exclusive province of griots!
How did Toumani Diabate help shape your attitudes towards your music, and how has he helped Malian music in general?
Toumani is an instrumentalist par excellence. He has changed public attitudes by placing emphasis on instrumental prowess. I’m have benefitted from his success. He also created a habit of visiting modest spaces which are part nightclub and part cultural space, where the Malian public and visitors to Bamako can listen to very good music and provides an environment for very good musicians to play in front of an informed audience. In a basic, kind of rustic looking space, with Toumani as the MC, the public danced and fraternized with artists. This space was the Hogon: it was open air and ran every weekend, it was one of the best memories of the 90s and a gift that Toumani offered to a generation of musicians, in that he popularized them and they were appreciated on a social and artistic level.
Are you excited about your upcoming US tour? Not many African musicians have toured this extensively in the US.
I know it's a great opportunity. It will be a pleasure to meet audiences well known for their generosity and their taste for African music.