sun 23/11/2014

Interview: Bassekou Kouyaté, Mali maestro | New music reviews, news & interviews

Interview: Bassekou Kouyaté, Mali maestro

Mali's hottest music star discusses coups, the blues and who are the real Muslims

Bassekou: Ngoni maestro and accidental politician

A couple of weeks ago on BBC’s Question Time one of the pundits airily commented that until recently no-one in the audience would have heard of Bamako, the capital of Mali. That wouldn’t be the case were there any world music fans there – for them, the country (perhaps only with Cuba as a rival) has the strongest and most renowned music heritage anywhere.

There are more general reasons for the supremacy of Malian music, including its accessible, bluesy sounds and the fact that Francophone African music has always had a boost through Paris, the most global-music-friendly city in Europe. More local and specific reasons are that that influential individuals in the UK like presenter/producer Lucy Duran and Nick Gold, of the most successful world music record company World Circuit, have adored and promoted Malian music here for decades.

What was unusual in recent weeks was how much of the political coverage of Mali has been by journalists known for their music writing, like artsdesk contributor Andy Morgan, Robin Denselow or Ian Birrell (David Cameron’s ex-speechwriter and co-founder of Africa Express), who all supported the French intervention. The underlying message “Without music, there is no Mali” (as theartsdesk’s review of a recent concert was subtitled) fuelled outrage at the Islamic fundamentalists who had overrun the north of the country.The Islamic fundamentalists were guilty of all kinds of barbarism, but banning music was high on the list. Other acts of cultural vandalism included destroying the Sufi shrines and ancient Islamic texts in Timbuktu, as Sophie Sarin describes elsewhere on theartsdesk.

A central figure in the Mali music scene is Bassekou Kouyaté, whose new album Jama Ko is a call for peace and tolerance. He is a master of the ngoni and has appeared on many of the key Malian albums of recent years, including the Afro-Cubism album, Savane, with the late blues maestro Ali Farka Touré as well as his own award-winning solo albums with his band Ngoni Ba. In live performance he packs a punch, as Howard Male noted on theartsdesk: “I’ve yet to witness an audience that hasn’t been pulled into their vortex of duelling ngonis, thumped and slapped calabash and sweet and soaring vocals.” He appeared on stage with Sir Paul McCartney at last year’s Africa Express, and was also in the recent Mali-Ko video for peace, organised by rising star Fatoumata Diawara (see below).

The video, featuring musicians from assorted ethnic backgrounds, was as much about promoting peace within the factions of Mali for internal consumption as much as raising awareness outside. The fact is that many Malians blame the nomadic Touaregs for the current woes in the country. The Touaregs' rebellion and attempt to set up an independent homeland in the north, which they dubbed Azawad, was then usurped by the Islamic radicals, and this triggered a coup which ousted the President, a friend and sponsor of Bassekou’s. It would be fair to say that many ordinary Malians currently loathe the Touaregs for their act of insurrection which split the country.

Kouyaté talks about the situation in Mali, overleaf

The bandits want to destroy us, they want to divide us. Mohammed himself had musicians at his house and we have been singing his praises for hundreds of years

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