At one point during tonight’s energetic set, Bassekou Kouyate parks his foot on the stage-front monitor and unleashes a wah wah-fuelled solo.
These are standard issue rock ‘n’ roll moves, but this is no regular rock show.
For starters, the 48-year old Malian musician isn’t shredding on an electric guitar; his instrument of choice is ngoni, a traditional West African lute that looks more like an impractically delicate wooden racket for a long-forgotten sport than an instrument.
A bona fide virtuoso, Kouyate milks impressive expressive power from the humble four strings of his ngoni, the instrument seemingly too flimsy to withhold the robust treatment needed for emitting lightning speed melodic runs that balance with rare ease between centuries-old griot traditions and spots of Hendrixian flash.
The three other ngoni players, two percussionists and lead vocalist Amy Sacko (Kouyate’s wife) in Ngoni ba get plenty of room to shine too. Deservedly so: last year’s album ‘Jama Ko’ (their third) gained plentiful notices on Best of 2013 listings, but the extended, effortlessly funky workouts on offer tonight make the album takes sound like mere rough drafts.
The current incarnation of Ngoni ba features only Kouyate’s family members, and the seemingly telepathic interplay on display could probably only be achieved by such close ties – or countless hours of practice. It’s hard to believe that much of the material on offer tonight could be filed under protest music, inspired as it is by Kouyate’s despair at the political upheaval wreaking havoc in Mali, such is the level of joy, energy and vibrancy on display throughout the 90-minute set that makes you question the wisdom of tonight’s sedate seating arrangements. For all the musical firepower and telepathic interplay, however, the most mesmerising moment lands when Kouyate sits down for the traditional ‘Poye 2’. It’s a powerful, perfectly nuanced performance that provides plentiful backing for the suggested links between Malian music and the Blues, which went on to sire rock ‘n’ roll that must have provided some inspiration for Ngoni ba’s robust dynamics – and that wah-wah pedal, of course. After such a hypnotic performance, the encore – essentially a marathon length drum solo – feels like one nod at rock show traditions too many.
Kouyate repeatedly makes fun of his limited English skills, but on this form the language skills really don’t matter: parked at a perfectly satisfying halfway point between tradition and the here and now, the music’s more than enough to get the point across.
Gig date: March 19