REVIEW: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba

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Sydney was lucky enough to have 2 performances by Malian group Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba at Sydney Festival this week.

In 2013, BBC named Bassekou Kouyaté as the Best African Artist of the Year. Seeing them in concert, it is not difficult to understand why.

Sydney, 16 January 2018: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba at the 2018 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)

Having attended their concerts at WOMADelaide a few years ago, it was quite a change to see them this time in the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent having seen them in the wide open spaces of Adelaide’s Botanic Park previously.

There were 5 on stage. Bassekou Kouyaté, the frontman of the group, who plays the ngoni, an ancient traditional instrument from Mali which has been played since the 14th century. He was accompanied by his son who played a larger, differently pitched ngoni, his brother on the drums and his nephew on a underarm drum. However, Amy Sacko, Bassekou’s wife and the singer of the group, could be an accomplished artist in her own right with a strong, beautiful voice which filled the Spiegeltent.

Sydney, 16 January 2018: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba at the 2018 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)

Even if we didn’t understand the words sung in Mali’s language, bambara, it didn’t stop the crowd from dancing and appreciating the melodies, rhythms and musical talent of Bassekou Kouyaté et Ngoni Ba.

Until about mid-way through their performance, we had only heard Amy Sacko sing. However, she leaves the stage and Bassekou sits down and teases the audience telling us that he doesn’t sing well. This statement makes the audience shout “sing, go on sing”. With a long, slow pulsating introduction before he starts singing, the crowd slow their dance to a meditative sway. Bassekou lied. His voice, maybe not as powerful as that of his wife, was still impressively strong and beautiful. The world’s best ngoni player can also sing!

Sydney, 16 January 2018: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba at the 2018 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)

Bassekou tells us that he is only going to speak to us in English throughout the performance and that when he comes back next year he will do so with a better level of English. His English was basic but enough to be understood and the audience didn’t care whether he spoke English anyway. Whereas Amy Sacko spoke to the audience in French, and although the audience was not francophone, Amy managed to get the audience to follow her instruction anyway. Language was no barrier in this performance.

Bassekou plays the traditional instrument of the ngoni in a very non-traditional manner. You could be forgiven for thinking you were at a rock concert. Bassekou even himself announcing at one point that “this is rock from Mali“. Later in the show, Bassekou invites prolific and Sydney based Malian guitarist Moussa Diakite onto stage where he performs an impressive guitar number. Diakite was in Mali’s famous Super Rail Band, and later guitarist for Saif Kaita.

An hour and a quarter simply wasn’t enough. We could have listened to and danced to Bassekou and his band all night!

If you missed them at Sydney Festival, they are performing their last Australian show of the tour tomorrow night in Melbourne (20 January).

You can see Moussa Diakite quite regularly at Camelot Lounge in Sydney’s Marrickville . His next show is on 26 January.  He will also perform on Sunday 11 and Monday 12 March at WOMADelaide.