Band on the Wall, Manchester, 22nd October 2009
It was in the newly renovated and recently re-opened surroundings of the legendary Manchester concert venue Band on the Wall that Bassekou Kouyate entered stage followed closely by other band members. This comprised a six piece band with a difference. In fact it would be more apt to descibe them as a mini orchestra for the unsual (in appearance at least) rectangular string instrument specific to West Africa, but known in Mali as the ngoni. The different size of each of the ngonis corresponds to the varying instrumentation in a western-style band and are designed to replicate bass and rhythm guitars among other instruments.
The songs on offer were a fascinating combination of the largely uptempo numbers from the excellent new album ‘I speak Fula’ and the more reflective pieces from its predecessor, the critically acclaimed ‘Segu Blue’. In the evening’s opening offering Bassekou immediately engages in a lengthy solo. He plays like a seasoned bluesman and the ease with which he solos stems in large part from the apprenticeship that he has served both with his father and grandfather, both nogoni players and makers. This is a feature of many of the top musicians in Mali and more generally in West Africa, belonging to a musically oriented family that goes back generation upon generation. Pieces alternate between uptempo and more laid back grooves. For the latter the bass nogoni plays a solo riff alongside which Bassekou lays down a vocal monologue, fingersnapping while the percussionist slowly builds in intensity. Suddenly there is a rapid shift in tempo and it is at this point that the whole band enters with Amy Sacko taking over vocals. The leader, Bassekou, is resplendent in a sashed camel-coloured traditional dress while lead singer and Bassekou’s wife Amy Sacko dazzles in a burnt orange dress.
On the uptempo numbers of which there are several, Bassekou moves to the left hand side of the stage to trade riffs with another nogoni player. When interviewed just before the concert, Bassekou declares his love of classic Congolese rumba with its renowned guitar duets and he seems to be taking on board their stage antics in order to warm up the audience. The sounds created on the various nogoni are quite astounding given the relatively simple nature of the instrument. Sometimes it can be likened to a blues guitar from John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters in full flow while on other occasions it can sound like a harp. For one number, which is devoted to kings of the Bambara kingdom, Bassekou sits down and plays his ngoni like a zither with minimum accompaniment on bass ngoni. To the astonishment of the audience he even conjurs up a 1970s style wah-wah guitar without any use of electrification. Amy Sacko adopts a serene stance throughout the evening and delights in taking the lead vocals with Bassekou on a shifting mid-tempo song. In the tradition of the great Malian divas Amy adopts a high-pitched tone. Part way through the concert the talking drum (a small drum held under the armpit and beaten with a large thin stick) becomes the core percussion sound (with calabash taking a secondary role) and one one song the percussionist leaps forward and jumps in the air as he solos, followed in hot pursuit by other band members. By now the appreciative audience are loving the on-stage gymnastics while Amy sings in praise of ‘Coulibaly’, a famous family name in Malian history. Endless repetition of a riff-laden groove begins to exert its influence upon the audience who are clearly in a dancing mood. Similar to Amadou and Mariam in concert, Amy calls out in French: ‘Do you want to sing with us? Ok’ while at another moment in the evening Bassekou enquires in English ‘You happy?’ to which one audience member implores him to speak in French. This pleases Bassekou greatly and he thanks him in the language of Moliere. Indeed at one point four ngonis play an identical riff with Amy singing before the talking drummer takes the tempo up a notch again.
For the deserved encore band members are introduced once more and the ngoni solo this time sounds more like the graceful and meditiative kora instrument. The visual side to the performance is emphasized further by instrumentalists indulging in twisting and turning routines to the obvious delight of other musicians and the now frenzied crowd alike. When Amy enquires once more whether the audience would like to sing with her, there is an immediate response before one by one the group members depart the stage leaving just a trio to play out. A great evening’s entertainment for an audience that was in the mood to party. Band on the Wall was surely tailor-made for this kind of concert. Tim Stenhouse