Malian bandleader Bassekou Kouyate sounds like the most kick-ass guitarist you’ve heard in a while, except for one thing — he doesn’t play guitar.
Instead, his instrument is the ngoni or “large lute,” a traditional African instrument that he described as the “the guitar’s grandfather” at a free live show Thursday, July 9 for the R&B Festival at MetroTech 2015, put on by Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Coming from a musical family in Western Africa, Kouyate started playing music when he was a pre-teen in the mid-’70s, picking up on the tradition of the griot, aka storyteller. He’d go on to rack up an impressive resume, including recording sessions and live dates with Bonnie Raitt, blues great Taj Mahal, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and others.
His own recording career began in 2007 with his band Ngoni Ba, which included several other ngoni players and other traditional Malian instruments; their first two albums were distributed in the U.S. by legendary indie-rock label Sub Pop.
We caught up to Kouyate just before the show to ask him about his music, his background and family, the famous people he’s played with and what he thinks of Malian music today — and the politics going on back in his native land (note that the first video is cut off from an over-anxious security guard, but the conversation continues right away in the next video). Kouyate’s manager Stéphane Grimm was on hand to help with translations (Je ne parle pas francais).
For the Brooklyn show, Kouyate mostly drew upon his fourth album and latest CD “Ba Power,” which came out this year on Glitterbeat Records. Kouyate’s band turns out to be an all-family affair, featuring his wife Amy Sacko (who sang impressively, bending and sustaining notes like an Arabic vocalist), their son, two brothers and a nephew, who he later offered up as a bargain at the merchandise table, saying, “Buy two CDs, and I give you my nephew!”
Kouyate himself peeled off some amazing, blistering solos seemingly effortlessly — a classic-rock fan sitting up front made immediate and appropriate comparisons to The Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, making Kouyate a good choice for Mountain Jam, Gathering of the Vibes or any other jam band festival (promoters, take note). He also pulled his nephew (who didn’t get sold off later as it turns out) for a back-and-forth ngoni instrumental battle.
Later, he seated himself to do an extended blues set, drawing to the stage German-born singer Leni Stern, who he’s recorded with before, to join in. In addition to a humming/moaning call-and-response that he tried out with the crowd (who made a yeoman effort), one of the percussionists later engaged the audience with a clap-along in response to his own playing.
Kouyate, a French-speaker mostly, cutely kept trying out his bits of English for the crowd, asking if it was good enough for them (which it was).
After the hour-long set, Kouyate’s manager was shifting numerous T-shirts and CDs to the waiting crowd with the musician soon joining them for photos and signings. After the fantastic show, I got caught up in the spirit of things and gladly plunked down my own money for the new record. You’ll want to do the same.
Plus, you’ll also want to see him play if he’s anywhere near where you live. If you don’t believe us, check out some of the videos below for proof (please ignore the occasional photographer or fan who jumped in front to get a pic for themselves).
Jason Gross is the social media manager for TheBlot Magazine.