Well the blues had a baby, and they named the baby rock and roll,” sang the late Muddy Waters. If true, then who fathered the blues? West African Bassekou Kouyate and his seven-piece band Ngoni Ba might say, “Bambara music,” an indirect forerunner to American blues originating in the region of Segu.
A Garana native and current Mali resident, Kouyate is a master of the ngoni, an ancient traditional lute from West Africa associated with griot culture, particularly storytelling, since the 13th century. And though the link between Bambara music and the blues may be tenuous, it’s nevertheless fitting that Kouyate will bring the essence of the griot art form to the Lowcountry, a former colonial melting pot of West African and European culture.
The story goes that a teenage Kouyate, always known as an innovator, played a concert with members of the legendary West African group Rail Band during which he strapped the ngoni over his shoulder like an electric guitar and played standing up in iconoclastic fashion, stunning the audience and traditionalists alike. Today, his style is common practice, and his influence extends to Western artists. Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame calls Kouyate “a fantastic example of how music can lift your mind and soul,” and Taj Mahal, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Bela Fleck all dabble in his elliptical, melodic style, an approach to music that may recall Paul Simon’s South African-inspired Graceland album.
Kouyate and Ngoni Ba are touring in support of I Speak Fula, a new album that further celebrates Mali’s cultural diversity and the playful spirit of Bambara music. Spoleto audiences are sure to revel in their joie de vivre.
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba
June 9, Wednesday, 9 p.m.
College of Charleston