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Segou’s musical triumph in Richmond

Bassekou Kouyaté and Ami Sacko feted by Richmonders at the Richmond Folk Festival

Mali’s famous orchestra NGONI BA was the Toast of the Town at the Richmond Folk Festival. Led by ngoni magician Bassekou Kouyaté and his vocalist wife Ami Sacko, the orchestra of seven Malian musicians wowed the crowd, and ended the Festival at fever pitch as three or four thousand fans danced the evening away at the Dominian Dance Pavilion on Brown’s Island Sunday night, October 16th.

Kouyaté is an ancient musical name in Mali. At Sunday’s banjo workshop with four of Virginia’s banjo masters, Bassekou explained how he had learned to play the ngoni from his father and grandfather, and how his ancestors were playing music and sang the sovereign’s praises seven hundred years ago at the court of the original Lion King, Sunjata Keita. The Lion King founded the Malian Empire in the year 1235, and his legend became famous through the songs of his griot Balafasé Kouyaté, ancestor of Bassekou the leader of NGONI BA.

The griot plays multiple roles in Malian society: story-teller and praise-singer, poet and musician, guardian of state and family secrets, historian and diplomat, spokesman for senior politicians and also for suitors wanting to negotiate a marriage. You cannot choose to be a griot: the role is hereditary, passed from father to son and from mother to daughter…. And normally griot families marry between themselves. Bassekou Kouyaté and Ami Sacko both have famous musical griot names. Griots play a vital role in Malian society, and the greatest family of griots is Kouyaté.

The four-stringed ngoni is the musical ancestor of the American banjo. Brought to Jamestown in the 1600s by slaves from the Mali Empire, the ngoni was adapted and modified by American musicians into the 5-stringed American banjo we know today. Different adaptations were being made also in Mali. Bassekou told the audience that older versions of the ngoni were often made using a gourd as soundbox… but if you drop one of these, it breaks – which is why most ngoni players prefer a carved wood base that also delivers a richer sound. Bassekou played on both the four-stringed version, and his own invention of a larger, seven-stringed ngoni that gives him more variation and greater volume.

Bassekou’s group played on the prestigious Altria stage Sunday afternoon at 2pm, but they said that they most enjoyed their two evening performances on the more intimate Dominian dance stage, where they felt more direct contact with their enthusiastic admirers. The final Sunday evening concert developed an electric atmosphere between dancers and musicians. When Ami Sacko opened her throat and let her voice soar, her fans showered the stage with dollar bills – showing that many Richmonders understand Malian culture and know that famous griots expect rewards for their praise singing.

We heard many of the group’s famous hit songs; but we especially enjoyed Ami’s rendering of Musow, meaning ‘women’: “Let us greet all our women, and thank them because they take care of their children and husbands… they give birth to our children, they give birth to all of us…” This is such a very African sentiment, one from which Americans could learn a great deal.

Alou Coulibaly on calebasse!
Behind the four ngoni players, Alou Coulibaly provided rhythm with his hands on the upturned gourd, or calabash=calebasse, while Moussa Sissoko provided entertainment and energy with his shaker yabura and the talking drum tamani which he played with extraordinary virtuosity, and such speed that for the audience his flying hands were reduced to a blur.

We also loved the group’s rendering of Bambugu Blues, about a king of Segou in the 1700s whose sticking-out teeth were so ugly that he felt ashamed of them, and knocked them out with a rock. This song was composed by Vieux Farka Touré, son of the late legendary guitarist Ali Farka Touré who won two Grammy awards. On Bassekou’s CD I Speak Fula (on sale at the Plan 9 store at the Festival and on Cary Street), this track was recorded with Vieux Farka Touré playing his dad’s guitar. Two years ago, Vieux Farka Touré himself opened the Richmond Folk Festival with huge acclaim. Whenever Malian musicians play in Richmond, Richmonders go crazy with dancing joy !

At home I also have Ami Sacko’s stunning solo album Integration, and another album from NGONI BA called Segu Blues –a musical tribute to Bassekou’s home city of Segou, Richmond’s sister city.

The next time I shall hear NGONI BA perform will be in February 2012 at the Segou Festival of the Niger River. Virginia Friends of Mali will be taking a delegation Segou - to visit the beauties of Mali, to inaugurate officially the maternity clinic we have just built in Segou, and to enjoy the Festival. I sincerely recommend you to join us for this unique and unforgettable experience. Come with us ! This will be a memorable trip, one you must not miss !

Robin Edward Poulton known as Macky Tall
Vice-President, Virginia Friends of Mali
Tel/fax: 1 804 355 6821 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            1 804 355 6821      end_of_the_skype_highlighting


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