His life has been a Blur...

Kouyate bringing one of the oldest instruments in Africa to Lancashire

Sunday, 2nd March 2014, 6:00 pm

By Tony Dewhurst

“The morning we began recording the album in Bamako, the coup d’ etat started,” recalled Kouyate.

“There was shooting and fighting across the road. They took over the radio station, then the looting and violence started.

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“In that situation of great crisis you can do two things.

“You can give up, or you can say, what the heck, let’s carry on. We carried on.”

Amid the continuing crisis in Mali, Kouyate and his band were forced to travel via 
Senegal and Portugal to reach Britain for the start of their tour that comes to Clitheroe next month.

“Jama Ko, the title of our new album, means a big gathering of the people, and is a call for unity, peace and tolerance, no matter who you are.

“The message in my music is let us come together and enjoy life, and celebrate the true spirit of Mali.”

Kouyate is one of the one world’s most celebrated players of the ngoni, a small, electrified, traditional lute, an ancestor of the banjo, of which he is a supreme master.

“The ngoni is the oldest instrument in Mali, it’s been around for thousands of years,” added Kouyate, who is a descendant from one of Mali’s oldest families.

“It’s great because you can play any kind of music with it – guitar, blues, classical, funk, rock and hip-hop.

“We’ve adapted the ngoni, adding electric pick-ups, distortion and effects pedals, so we can get some wild sounds out of it.”

The band’s furiously live shows, with Kouyate and various close relatives and friends playing an array of differently pitched lutes in a barrage of towering riffs, attracted the attention of Damon Albarn from Blur.

Kouyate featured in Albarn’s Africa Express project, playing live with Albarn and Paul McCartney.

His first offering, Segu Blue, won both the best album and best artist award at Radio 3’s Awards for World Music.

“Damon is my friend; he likes my music.

“I like his music, we’ve played music together numerous times before and we’ve done lots of projects.

“We’ve even played in my house in Mali. It’s a real spiritual exchange for me.”

Sometime Arcade Fire drummer and producer Howard Bilerman offered his services to Kouyate after seeing one of his gigs, and subsequently produced their last album.

“I wanted to get a tougher sound on the album,” says Kouyate.

“The first two were more traditional.

“But people said there was a lot of energy – a lot of rock and roll – in our live shows that they weren’t hearing on the albums.

“So we wanted to bring that rawness out and it seems to have worked.”

Bassekou Kouyate and Nhoni Ba, Clitheroe Grand, March 12. 01200 421599.

Tickets: £18.