Friday, April 09, 2010

"Malian Magic"

A review of Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba
by Mary S. Landon

Imagine: a darkened room, an intimate stage waiting in anticipation; then, clear, bluesy notes piercing the air, African clothing in hues of purple and gold, and expressive musicians with an infectious passion for their craft.

This is Bassekou Kouyate and his band, Ngoni Ba. This group of six men and one woman had the entire FlynnSpace moving on Wednesday evening, March 31. An enthusiastic full house appreciated the music, the humor, and the showmanship of this fun group.

This group plays a unique blend of musical styles that contains elements of folk, rock, jazz, and roots music, but is overwhelmingly based in blues traditions. Bassekou comes from a long history of griots, or traditional historians and praise musicians. Four of the men, including Bassekou, play the ngoni, a “spike lute” and an ancestor of the banjo. It has a taut-skinned drum body, with a neck that is round and fretless. Strings are stroked, plucked, and picked in similar fashion to a guitar or banjo. The finger work was truly amazing. These four instruments, of varying sizes, were amplified and most of them seemed to have some duct tape helping to hold wires in place. Joining the four ngoni players were two percussionists. I’ve always felt that drummers are the unsung heroes of a band, until they have their chance to solo. These two were no exception, as they kept up an incredibly fast beat to back up the forceful vocals of Amy, Bassekou’s wife, and the jamming of the four ngonis. Likewise, they could deliver a mere suggestion of beat and rhythm during a quieter blues ballad.

Bassekou, who speaks his native Malian language as well as French, communicated fairly well in English, enough to express his joy of music and his appreciation for the audience support. Occasionally, he and Amy fell into French conversation, which was understood by some of the audience. He and the other musicians took turns swaying in rhythmic steps and circles on stage. It seemed challenging enough to simply play the ngonis, and play them fast. Then they added body movement and soulful singing! At times, Bassekou’s eyes rolled back in his head as he entered the completely focused state of an artist. Such energy! One of the percussionists had the incredibly challenging, hot, focused job of shaking, in repetitive rhythms, a round object (gourd?) covered with beads or shells. This instrument made a shuffling, rapping noise and he kept it going in what seemed to be perfect time. And he kept smiling! During long songs!

Amy Sacko’s deep, smoky voice flowed in and out of the voices of the instruments. She hit the sensual lows and she hit the brilliant highs with clarity, telling a story with each song. One song in particular was a back-and-forth conversation between an impassioned Amy and a more subdued Bassekou.

This was a show not to be missed. I was in awe of this group, not just for their technical abilities, but for their sheer happiness at doing what they obviously love to do. Their energy absolutely spread throughout the crowd, creating many wide smiles.

Mary S. Landon is a native Vermonter and UVM grad who has moved back to the Burlington community after many years in southern Vermont. She works as a freelance writer, fine artist, graphic designer, and landscape gardener. Her two daughters live in Portland, Oregon. Mary is also an avid cyclist and cook.

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