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Hitting The Rhythm Stick

Bassekou Kouyate
Photo: Judith Burrows
On the other side of Bassekou’s family is the legendary Banzoumana Sissoko, his mother’s uncle who was like a father to her, after her real father died when she was very young. “This guy was very important to Malian music,” stresses Lucy. “He was on a par with someone like Woody Guthrie. The whole of Mali knows who he is. He was a fierce uncompromising guy who really hated the griots who praised just to get money. He’s featured on the album One Day In Radio Mali: African Pearls 3 (Syllart/Discograph). He has this amazing gruff voice, plays bass ngoni and sounds really heavy. You wanna hear the roots of the blues? … Listen to Banzoumana!”

“He liked me very much because I was like his grandson and also because I could play,” says Bassekou. “He lived over in Bamako, but sometimes I’d travel from Garana to hang out with my cool granddad! People said that he played the ngoni so fast that you couldn’t see his fingers flying!” Two tracks on Segu Blue are based on traditional tunes which Bassekou learnt from Banzoumana Sissoko: Jonkolomi (a ripe old tale of warriors and witchcraft originating from the Bamana Empire) and the stately Jura Nani.

Bassekou’s father Mustapha was also a great ngoni player and his mother a renowned praise singer. Theirs was an intensely musical household. The teenage Bassekou was soon performing at local life cycle ceremonies and even depped with his mother on a year-long tour of Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast when his father was taken ill in 1979. Two years later he left the village for the (comparatively) bright lights of Segu, where he hooked up with a local guitarist and performed regularly. In 1984 he moved on to Bamako as part of the backing group of the young singer Nainy Diabate and three years later met Toumani Diabate for the first time. “We hit it off immediately,” recalls Bassekou. “We’re about the same age (I’m a year younger than him) and share a similar musical spirit.” In 1989, Bassekou featured on Toumani’s second international release Djelika (Hannibal), a trio recording that also featured balafon player Keletigui Diabate (and was co-produced by Lucy Duran).

In the early ‘90s (no one seems too clear about the exact date), he was contacted by the US Embassy and invited to the Tennessee Banjo Festival. “This invitation came completely out of the blue. I didn’t really know what it was all about. I’d never seen a banjo before and had never visited America. I knew nothing about their musical traditions.” However, the minute he picked up a banjo, he felt an instant affinity with the instrument. “I was so surprised. The construction of the banjo was different to that of an ngoni, but I could see straight away that it was related. The tuning was similar and I was able to just pick it up and play.” His partner in duelling banjo-ism at the festival was Taj Mahal (see fR268). “He was extremely kind and gracious to me and called me his ‘younger brother’. During his own performance, Taj dedicated a tune to Bassekou and invited him to come up on stage and play. He made quite an impression too. “One person came up afterwards and asked me if I had a machine inside the ngoni, in order to make all the sounds that I made!”

fRom fRoots 287, May 2007


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