The Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate, master of the West African lute called the ngoni, brought an all-family band (son, wife, and brother) to the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of art last night for a joyous concert with an intimate feel. Kouyate amplifies traditional sounds and fuses them with elements of American blues (which he good-naturedly insists is “African blues”) and other multicultural strains to create a heady brew of celebratory dance music that’s almost impossible not to move to.
As he speaks little English, Kouyate let the music do the talking, offering almost no explanations of either the musical traditions he delves into and reworks nor the meanings of the songs. In the end it didn’t matter. There wasn’t a great deal of singing anyway, and the flavor of the words, sung (I assumed) in Bambara, sufficed together with the music to establish the mood.
Switching between two different ngonis, Kouyati sailed through songs and jams piled with polyrhythms, celebratory riffs, and one killer blues solo that Son Seals would have gaped at. The ngoni, percussion, and electric bass-ngoni merged with voices featuring lead singing from his wife Amy Sacko. Sacko alternated between calm intonations and ululating calls, words that meant a good deal to the responsive coterie of compatriots who formed a small but vocal segment of the audience. Vocal, and mobile too – spontaneous dancing erupted more than once.
The ngoni is described as the key instrument of griot culture, and Kouyate is heavily identified with the small stringed instrument, which he has modified and electrified. In fact the Wikipedia page for the ngoni features a photo of none other than Kouyate. He and his band do not play what we have come to know as Afropop. Their music is looser, more intimate. It’s an amplified – a little too amplified at times last night – transmutation of the sounds of the instrument that Kouyate calls the “guitar’s grandfather,” backed by a versatile drum plus modern cymbals, and a bass that looks like so much fun to play I started to want one for myself.
When the band began a two-song encore by leading the audience in the Cuban anthem “Guantanamera,” it not only broadened the concert’s multicultural bona fides and brought to mind the modus operandi of the late great Pete Seeger, it also drew us further into the actual family on stage, turning us into one big family encompassing old and young, well-heeled and humble, grandfathers and guitars’ grandfathers, the sounds of Africa and of America and of the Middle East, and all the colors of the rainbow. The song “Jama Ko,” which means “a big gathering of people,” was just right for the occasion, which was also the first in this season’s “Around the World, Around the City” concert series from the World Music Institute.