It is sometimes said music gives voice to the concerns of a people. While this may not be as true in North American popular music as it once was in countries with a history of an oral tradition, music is a key element in the telling of the people’s stories. In West Africa griots are historians, storytellers, poets and musicians rolled into one. However, not only do they learn and recount the history of their tribe and its important people, they are also expected to be able to create songs about the state of the world around them in the present day.
While not all popular musicians in the region are griots – it’s a hereditary post passed from father to son involving years of study and preparation – it doesn’t stop them from sharing many of the same attributes. So when the Tuareg uprising in Northern Mali turned into something that was far more insidious with repercussions affecting the entire country, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if a response shows up on an album of popular music.
Bassekou Kouyate was in the recording studio in the capital city of Mali, Bamako, when the military overthrew the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012. With tensions mounting between the various ethnic groups in the country due to fear and anger and the very real danger of reprisals and crackdowns on musicians, Kouyate wrote and recorded (with Ngoni Ba) Jama Ko, now available in North America on Out Here Records.
With Islamic extremists in the North rounding up musicians and destroying and confiscating musical equipment and the Malian army’s history of targeting musicians who make waves, making the record was an act of extraordinary courage. Yet not only did Kouyate make this record, he recorded songs meant to inspire hope and defiance among the people of Mali. The disc’s title song, “Jama Ko”, translates literally as “a big gathering of people”, and is a celebration of the country’s diversity. It is a call for unity and tolerance and encourages people, no matter who they are, to come together, enjoy life and celebrate the true spirit of Mali.
While the country’s population is more than 90% Muslim, Kouyate explains in a statement about the disc, their version of Islam has nothing in common with the strict imposition of Sharia law the forces in the North were trying to force upon people. Music has not only played a role in the recounting of their histories, it has also been a major part of their worship as praise songs for the prophet Muhammad have been written and sung for hundreds of years. He concludes with the simple yet telling statement: “If the Islamists stop people music-making they will rip the heart out of Mali”.
Well in spite of frequent power outages, a curfew and fuel shortages, Kouyate makes some fine music on Jama Ko. He plays the West African string instrument known as the ngoni. This is basically a hollowed out gourd covered by a piece of raw-hide, usually goat skin, with a piece of doweling stuck in one end strung with anywhere from four to seven strings, depending on the tone the player wishes to create. The strings are plucked in the same manner someone would pluck a banjo, an instrument which in all probability was inspired by the ngoni. However, it has a much more flexible sound than its modern descendant. In the hands of an accomplished player like Kouyate, for all its simplicity of construction, a ngoni can produce leads as ornate as any guitar.
Aside from being accompanied by his two sons Madou and Moustafa and fellow ngoni player Sissoko, special guest vocalists are dotted through out the recording. Two of the songs aside from the title track which relate directly to the situation in Mali at the time the recording was made are “Sinaly”, featuring Kasse Mady Diabate on lead vocals and “Kele Magni”. The first song is about Sialy Diarra, a king of the Bamara people who was famous for resisting an attempt in the 19th century of the imposition of Sharia law. While to audiences outside of Mali the significance of this might be lost, those within the country would be familiar with the history and be inspired by its message of standing up for their own culture.
On this song we also hear how Kouyate has absorbed a variety of musical influences from around the world, as there is a decided “Latin” feel to the track in spite of its very Afrocentric subject matter. Sacko and Arby are from Timbuktu in Northern Mali, in the heart of the area where the uprising was taking place. In fact, Timbuktu was captured by the rebel forces at about the time the recording was made, “Kele Magni”, which is a direct call for peace in the country, features a beautiful duet between the two guest vocalists. As the two singers would obviously be persecuted for being musicians if they had returned home while Timbuktu was occupied, the song and its message become all the more powerful.
One of the more compelling pieces on the disc is the track “Wagadou”. It’s one of those occasions where not being able to speak the language of those singing doesn’t make a bit of difference to the emotional impact of a song. The rather pensive and moody atmosphere Kouyate manages to create with just his ngoni and some keyboards added in the mixing process by producer Howard Bilerman offers us a glimpse at Kouyate’s diversity as a musician and his willingness to experiment with sound.
Among the special guests to appear on this recording, the one who will be most familiar to North American audiences is the great Taj Mahal. He and Kouyate perform a great blues duet on the track “Poye 2”, in French. They trade leads back and forth on guitar and ngoni and exchange duties on lead vocals. The mix of African French and what sounds like Mahal’s creole French is wonderful and their instrumental duets are a brilliant melding of the old world with the new. If you ever needed proof of the old saying music knows no language and doesn’t recognize borders, this song is it.
It’s not often we think of the act of recording music in terms of bravery. In the case of the latest disc from Kouyate and his fellow musicians, their recording was both an act of defiance in the face of those who would ban music and an act of celebration honouring their traditions and their culture. What’s even more amazing is even in the best of circumstances this would be an excellent collection of music featuring great musicians. Considering the conditions under which it was recorded, it’s astounding the disc was ever made, let alone is of such a high quality both artistically and technically. It takes a real devotion and love for your art to overcome these kinds of obstacles and produce work of such quality. Listen to this album and hear what love sounds like.