Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - Somerville Theatre 3/27/2010

montage of clips from the show

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba

What better way to follow up last Saturday's Habib Koité concert than with a performance by another group that we saw at the 2009 Festival au Desert in Mali: Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba. The ngoni is a 4-stringed lute made of wood and cow hide which dates back to the 1300's, and it is traditionally played sitting down. Bassekou's father and grandfather played it in this traditional way, but interest in the ngoni was waning as the electric guitar gained prominence in Malian music. Bassekou started a trend when at a legendary performance in 1985, he fitted his ngoni with a guitar strap and played standing up and taking center stage for his solos. This went over very well, and Bassekou set about forming Ngoni Ba, a band which featured four ngonis and two percussionists, with the vocal stylings of his wife Amy Sacko.

Bassekou and the band capped off the Friday night concert at the Festival au Desert in Essakane, Mali in 2009. This was the first we had heard of them and they totally blew us away with their energetic performance. When we heard that they would be playing their Boston area debut at the Somerville Theatre, we knew we had to be there.

The band consists of Bassekou Kouyate on lead ngoni, Fousseyni Kouyate on medium bass ngoni, Barou Kouyate on ngoni, Moussa Bah on bass ngoni, Amy Sacko on lead vocals, Alou Coulibaly on calabash, and Moussa Sissoko on percussion. From the first song, Bassekou showed off his talents playing some amazing solos. He could make his instrument sound like a '50's-style hollow body guitar, a banjo, or a dobro. He even used a wah-wah pedal at times to fully modernize the ngoni. At one point the band left the stage and he sat down in a chair and played an extremely bluesy song that reminded me of the old-time Delta bluesmen.

The band was incredibly energetic, with the percussionists jumping and kicking their way through the jamming songs. Amy Sacko's vocals were beautiful, and she was a mesmerizing dancer. At times her soaring vocals totally evoked memories of Timbuktu. They recognized a Malian singer in the audience and called her up onstage during one of the songs. Unfortunately we didn't catch her name (Bassekou's self-consciousness about his English led him to speak to the crowd in French and Bambara at times) but she was amazing as well, taking the stage and hugging Bassekou and Amy.

Two local musicians also joined the band onstage for a number, playing bass and guitar. It was fun to watch the interplay between the female bass player and the bass ngoni players while she played a solo. When the guitar player had his solo, Bassekou took him by the shoulders and dragged him up to the front of the stage. As soon as he let go, however, the guitarist immediately started stepping backwards.

The crowd loved every minute of the nearly two hour performance, and clapped along as the band tore through a very engaging set. Audience members danced in the aisles and walked up to the stage to shower the performers with dollar bills, a traditional way of showing one's appreciation in Mali.

It was wonderful to be able to see them in an intimate setting. In Essakane we had enjoyed their music from the dunes but never got a close enough look. We were in the second row of the mezzanine last night and had a prime location for watching every nuance of the performance.

After the show, we went to the merchandise table. We had bought a copy of their first release, Segu Blue, at the Festival, but it appeared to be a CD-R with computer printout artwork. We have listened to it quite a bit, and when we saw that the official U.S. release was available, along with their new album I Speak Fula, together for $30, we bought both of them. Bassekou came out to sign CD's, and Craig spoke briefly with his manager, telling him that we saw them perform at the Festival last year. "Tell him that! He played the Festival this year as well. He plays it most years." The manager then got Bassekou's attention and he told him "They saw you at the Festival!" "Essakane," I said. "ESSAKANE!" Bassekou said excitedly and he looked at us with a big smile. He signed our new CD's and I asked if we could get a photo with him. He happily agreed. It took a moment for me to find someone and show them how to use the camera, but the moment we were ready he gave us his full attention, put his arms around our shoulders, and gave a big smile for the camera.

We thoroughly enjoyed our evening of Malian music, harkening back to our experience of listening to the band in the Sahara Desert sitting on a sand dune under a full moon. We felt that their Boston area debut was a big success, and we look forward to next time!

Amy Sacko

Amy Sacko and Bassekou Kouyate

Amy Sacko and Bassekou Kouyate

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba

Drum Solo

Bassekou Kouyate with Steph and Craig