Sing for Them

By  |  November 21, 2016
Bassekou Kouyaté. Courtesy of Wiki Commons Bassekou Kouyaté. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

The story Bassekou Kouyaté wants to tell is simply this: it was cotton that brought the blues from Mali to America, and it was the ngoni—the West African lute that is a predecessor to the banjo—that brought the songs. Kouyaté would like to make a film about this story—one told, for a change, from an African perspective. We are sitting in the courtyard of a hotel in Lowell, Massachusetts, to discuss the project. It is July 2015 and Kouyaté and his band, Ngoni Ba, are in town to play the Lowell Folk Festival.

“I’ve thought, I’ve seen, I’ve read,” he says in French, our only common language. “I’ve spoken with my parents. I’ve spoken with my grandparents. They’ve explained it to me: We are the griots; we are the guardians of tradition.”

Kouyaté begins by laying out the family line, affirming that this story runs in his blood. Establishing his oral history cred, as it were. Not because he has to, but because it is the best way to begin. Kouyaté’s personal history—his family history—is the story of Malian music. Kouyaté is a jeli, a griot of the Bamana people from the Ségou region in central Mali, part of a celebrated line of jeliw going back centuries. His father, Moustapha Kouyaté, was a great player and innovator of the ngoni who taught Bassekou to play the instrument. Kouyaté’s mother is the acclaimed singer Yakaré Damba, and her father was the legendary Malian jeli Banzoumana Sissoko—the Old Lion. In Mali, Kouyaté is what we might consider a rock star. He is a Grammy nominee, recognized around the world as an ngoni virtuoso. His playing is lyrical, evocative, and seemingly effortless, and his repertoire incorporates both Malian Bamana traditions and Western influences.

When they perform, Ngoni Ba wear traditional Bamana garb: colorful embroidered full-length tunics called boubous for the men, and tunic dresses and pagnes (long, wraparound skirts) for the women. On this cool summer Friday afternoon, however, Kouyaté is wearing jeans, with a freshly pressed yellow dress shirt and dark sunglasses. His wrist bears a watch with a thick metal band. He sits on a bench, an iPhone next to his leg, cradling his ngoni in his lap. As we set up a couple of cameras and a microphone to record the conversation, Kouyaté waits in a pleasant, stately silence. Offstage, his default setting is reserved.

Once the cameras start rolling, he slips seamlessly into the magnetic tone of a storyteller. He is emphatic and warm. Kouyaté’s voice carries an intrinsic authority as he speaks of cotton production and its relationship to music in contemporary Mali.

I want people to see how we do this in the fields, how we sing in the tradition—this is very important—how [this music] came here to the United States. They sing the same songs that the Afro-Americans who came to America sang hundreds of years ago. You’ll have one hundred people singing like this while cultivating. The men, the women sing, play the drums, play the ngoni, more than thirty women, more than one hundred men doing that in the fields. It’s incredible. That exists with us even today.

Kouyaté puts down the ngoni and begins rhythmically clapping, re-creating an image of people drumming and working the cotton field with their hands. The work song springs from him a cappella, unlocking the energy of the harvest as he sings.

I came to sing for you, the people of the earth; the people who work the cotton field, the people who own the field. We sing, we sing, we sing for them.

 

The jeli songs that form the basis of Kouyaté’s repertoire have their roots in the Segu Empire (1712–1861), during which time the Bamana rose to power. This was a period of continual warfare, and prisoners of war were taken as slaves. It was also the peak era of the American slave trade. As Tayiru Banbera, himself a jeli, told historian David C. Conrad in the book A State of Intrigue: The Epic of Bamana Segu, “If you could catch somebody, you could sell him. If somebody could catch you, he would sell you. There was no such thing as prison.”

The Bamana are the ethnic group most closely associated with farming in Mali, where cotton has been an important crop since before the colonial era. Bamana slaves were brought to Louisiana and South Carolina because of their expertise in growing rice and cotton. They carried with them the ngoni, their traditional work songs stowed in its hollowed belly. Kouyaté explains it this way:

At that time, the ngoni was made with a round gourd. And it had one string or four strings. Our parents made the ngoni with a small gourd. But if you dropped it, it broke right away. So, now we make it out of wood.

When they brought it over, they called it banjo. Banjo is the ngoni. The Mandinka call it nkotingo. We the Bamana call it ngoni. Among the Peul, gambari. The Senegalese call it xalam.

All of these are the same instrument. We have had this instrument since before the birth of Jesus Christ. This is the oldest instrument of the griots in Africa.

 

Since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, generations of immigrants have gravitated to Lowell to work in the mills, where raw cotton was guided through hulking machines by thousands of workers’ hands to produce tens of thousands of miles of cloth. Known to many as the hometown of Jack Kerouac, Lowell is also the birthplace of George Saliba, son of Syrian immigrants and inventor of the Presto Disc Recorder, the 1930s machine we use to cut records for The 78 Project as we travel the country to record contemporary musicians. John and Alan Lomax used the Presto Disc Recorder on their epochal journeys through the South in the thirties and forties to record what they thought at the time was a vanishing rural American folk music tradition. Along the way, they discovered and recorded seminal blues artists like Huddie William Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters).

Today, when Americans speak about the blues, they tend to refer to specific performances captured on discs or tape by the prevailing recording equipment of the day—and many of us have come to see these artifacts of technology as composing the definitive historical record. Kouyaté wants to recalibrate this history. Some eighty years after the invention of the Presto Disc Recorder, he speaks of a different narrative of the journey of the blues, one that takes us back to an oral history.

I had never heard of the blues until my first trip to the U.S. in 1989, when I was twenty-three years old. It was not music that I heard in Mali. Even now, vintage griot musicians in our villages respond to requests to play a korosi koro—an old type of song in a pentatonic scale composed hundreds of years ago, perhaps for a local court. It will clearly be of the blues family, to which the older village musicians have never been introduced.

Meeting Taj Mahal was the first indication I had that my music speaks to the rest of the world. Taj said, “I see you know the blues,” while I insisted I was just playing my own Bamana music. We immediately understood we were speaking the same musical language, and he has been a friend and advisor ever since.

 

It is several hours after our conversation in the courtyard, and Kouyaté and his band, now in traditional garb, are on a stage inside a tent. The audience members have long ago abandoned their folding chairs. They are rocking out in the heat of the dance floor. Ngoni Ba features several of Kouyaté’s family members, including his wife, Amy Sacko. She is known as “the Tina Turner of Mali,” and it is easy to see why. As she dances, she sends her vocals flying from coaxing sotto to high-wire descant.

Kouyaté’s virtuosity is on display tonight, along with his groundbreaking innovations. For one, he has arranged the ensemble as a quartet of ngonis of various sizes, with the bass and middle ngonis to fill in the voices of his ensemble; Kouyaté himself plays the more traditionally sized smaller ngoni, which is higher pitched. For another, the ensemble plays standing, their instruments equipped with guitar straps and electric pickups that lead to amps powering huge speaker cabinets. (Typically, ngoni players perform seated, right leg straddling the instrument.) Kouyaté and his band take solos that would be at home in the extended-jam, interpretive Americana revivals of the 1960s and today. To listen to this music is to feel intimately connected to instruments played at maximum volume—the texture of the skins, the tautness of the strings, and the density of the wood—all driving along like a runaway freight train of polyrhythmic intensity.

The next day, Kouyaté is again onstage, with Sacko and their son, Moustafa. Along with Mississippi bluesman Super Chikan, they are taking part in an outdoor symposium about the connections between West African musical traditions and those of the American South. Super Chikan holds a homemade guitar. It is fretless; he plays it with a slide. He mentions learning to play music on the diddley-bow, the one-string homemade blues instrument that is certainly a relative of the one-string ngoni. Kouyaté, describing his ngoni, points out that one can play any kind of music with it, that the ngoni is the father of the banjo, the grandfather of the guitar.

Super Chikan plays a slide version of “You Are My Sunshine.” Kouyaté says that it reminds him of “Poyi,” an ancient Bamana tune that was played as captives were sent off to slavery in America. According to Kouyate, “Poyi” is a tune with a long history, associated with battle and bloodshed, symbolic of bravery and of the choice between death and capture. He demonstrates by playing a short rendition, starting with a stunning blues riff intro full of slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs before seamlessly pivoting into a repeated pentatonic pattern occasionally colored by blues scale embellishments. The similarities to the blues are inescapable, both in the song’s melodies and harmonies and in the ngoni playing techniques we’ve come to associate with the slide guitar. It is chilling to think that this is the last piece of music innumerable humans heard before being sent off toward the trans-Atlantic passage.

It is as if Kouyaté is telling us that no matter what is said on this panel, and no matter what we say or write about the relationship between the slide guitar and the ngoni—between the blues and Malian music—those two instruments know more about each other than we ever will.


In our 2016 music issue, Visions of the Blues, Banning Eyre writes about Bassekou Kouyaté’s song “Segu Blue.”

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Alex Steyermark’s feature films, Prey for Rock & Roll (2003), One Last Thing…(2006), Losers Take All (2013) and documentary The 78 Project Movie (2014) have been acclaimed at dozens of U.S. and International film festivals including Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca, SXSW and BFI London, and are distributed throughout the world. He is a creator, producer and the director of the ongoing critically acclaimed music documentary web series, The 78 Project, which was an official selection at the inaugural Cannes Cross Media Corner and the British Film Institute's Power to the Pixel Cross Media Forum. He is an adjunct professor in the graduate film program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he is the founder of the ASCAP/Columbia Film Scoring Workshop.

Lavinia Jones Wright is a journalist, actor, filmmaker, and musician. With director Alex Steyermark, she traveled America recording musicians on a 1930s-era 78 rpm disc-cutting machine coproducing, writing for, and appearing in The 78 Project Movie and The 78 Project web series. She currently appears on Showtime’s The Affair. A Philadelphia native, she resides in Brooklyn.