Give me a break: Malian maverick takes on the extremists

Bassekou Kouyaté’s new album is a call for solidarity against the ‘armed bandits’ of his troubled homeland

Bassekou Kouyaté was in a studio in downtown Bamako, about to press the record button on his new album, when the amps went dead and he heard the sound of gunfire in the distance.

“It’s a bad, bad memory for me,” he says of March 22nd this year, when factions within Mali’s military – provoked by, or perhaps taking advantage of, the increasing unrest in the north of the country – brought chaos to the Malian capital.

"Everyone was panicking. There were a lot of journalists and photographers there from England and Germany who had come for the recording. We were all asking ourselves: is this the end of the world or what?

"Then somebody came in and said 'it's a coup d'état'," says Kouyaté, laughing ruefully. "I said, 'No way. These things don't happen in Mali. If you're not happy with someone, you invite them to resign, you don't start a coup d'état.' "


Kouyaté is descended from a long line of griots, hereditary bards to the Malian elite and custodians of an ancient artistic tradition. His response was to keep on making music. When the power came back on, he and his band, Ngoni Ba, laid down a new song, Ne Me Fatigue Pas – literally "don't tire me out", though perhaps "give me a break" is a closer translation.

"We were there in the studio and everyone was saying 'We're sick and tired of these politicians! We are here to make music! Ne me fatigue pas!" There's anger in his voice as he explains the song's lyrics. "We want peace in the world again. War is good for no one. The guilty remain in power, and the innocents are the ones who die. War is for money, for selling arms. Why do you want to buy arms to kill a sister, a brother, a relative ? Ne me fatigue pas! We want peace in the world. Ne me fatigue pas!"

Father of the banjo
Kouyaté's instrument, the ngoni, is a simple lute-like instrument of ancient design that probably crossed the Atlantic and gave its name to the banjo. It is found throughout west Africa but particularly valued in Mali, where it is plucked, with extraordinary speed and delicacy, as a solo instrument and to accompany singing.

Schooled at his father’s knee, Kouyaté is now taking the ngoni tradition and updating it, embracing western influences, using amplification and sound processing. With Ngoni Ba, he layers instruments of different registers together and mixes them with percussion and voice to create a music of intricate riffs and rhythms.

It is music that has won him a global following and added his name to the growing list of superstars from this west African musical hothouse, alongside Salif Keita, Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, and Touareg rebels Tinariwen.

In Mali, his overhaul of the tradition was initially regarded with suspicion. "At first, they didn't like it. They shook their heads and said 'Ah Bassekou, what are you doing? You are not creating with the tradition.' I said to them, 'That's enough tradition; the griots are in trouble.'

“All the young people preferred the guitar. But this is no longer the case,” he adds proudly. “Now they prefer the ngoni.”

While its musicians move out into the world, Mali's political future remains uncertain. When the Touareg separatists in the north rose up last year, this time with incitement from extremist groups with links to al-Qaeda and a distrust of all music, Mali's democracy was left hanging by a thread. It took the French military to enforce a temporary peace.

Man on a mission
Most Malians will be praying that the current round of elections leads to stability. But the forces seeking to tear one of Africa's poorest countries apart remain and so, for now, Kouyaté is a man on a mission. To him, the cultural fascism of the extremists is repugnant: the title of his new album, Jama Ko, is his response to them. For him, jama ko, meaning a coming together of people, represents the true spirit of Mali.

“We must stick together. We have come a long way to get where we are now. We will not be able to find another country like Mali. We must have solidarity against these armed bandits. They are not Muslims. They were never Muslim. I am a Muslim, just like my father. A Muslim must never kill another Muslim. And in the Koran, Muhammad brings musicians to his wedding feast.”

The musicians Kouyaté is bringing to Kilkenny and Dublin this weekend represent a noble tradition that is engaging confidently with the world on its own terms. Now more than ever, Mali needs the world to return the favour.

Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba play the Set Theatre, Kilkenny, on Saturday and the Sugar Club, Dublin, on Sunday; kilkennyarts. ie