Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba: The Music Room, Philharmonic, Liverpool


Bassekou Kouyate and Amy Sacko

Bassekou Kouyaté is an artist who has to be seen to be believed. Getintothis’ Paul Riley paid witness to a spot of musical brilliance.

It is always exciting to go to a freshly-opened venue, particularly when it is an addition to a familiar music scene. Much has been made of the opening of the Royal Philharmonic Hall‘s new venture, The Music Room. Tucked away round the corner from the main entrance, the venue oozed sophistication as the crowd filtered in. It was new, shiny and exciting.
After the inital thrill wore off, we began to evaluate the room anew. First impressions were that it looks pristine, which is to be expected. After taking in the surroundings for a few minutes, however, we began to feel a little uncomfortable. Grasping for words to describe our surroundings, we eventually plumped for ‘like being trapped inside a giant sugar cube a la 2001: A Space Odyssey.’
The cream panels that bedeck all four walls have been put in place with sound in mind. This, we applaud; there is nothing worse than an incredible gig in a terrible acoustic space, and there is no doubt that the music tonight sounded incredible. Unfortunately, their bleakly clinical appearance also has the effect of draining any atmosphere from the room, expensive-looking lighting rig notwithstanding. When put against similar-sized venues such as The Scandinavian Church, it seems an odd choice of design. It is well-suited to Kraftwerk, perhaps, but for the majority of performers, The Music Room may have them starting on the back foot.
Bassekou Kouyaté began the evening with a simple song. His ngoni played a repetitive and haunting melody underneath the soaring and powerful vocals of his wife, Amy Sacko. In a venue with more natural reverb this could have sent chills down the spine; tonight it felt like a struggle.
Thankfully, when the rest of the band took to the stage for the second song, things quickly began to pick up momentum. Joined by his eldest son on bass ngoni and cousin on the tamani talking drum, the full sound was lush and exciting. In lieu of a drum kit, Kouyaté‘s brother played the calabash drum, coaxing an fantastic range of sounds from the dried gourd using just his bare hands. As the second song kicked in, an atmosphere of excitement began to leak into the room.
Like the calabash, Kouyaté‘s own instrument is deceptively simple. He describes it as ‘The guitar’s grandfather and the banjo’s father‘. Essentially a rounded stick stuck into a goatskin drum, he plays amazingly complex rhythms and melodies, on just four strings. Kouyaté also has a trick up his sleeve: using wah, distortion and other guitar tricks, and with one foot on the monitor, he is somehow able to channel the spirit of Jimi Hendrix Think Dave Gilmour if he had gone the way of Graceland-era Paul Simon. There doesn’t seem to be enough space to fit all those notes onto the tiny ngoni’s neck.
Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba play explosive, energetic songs encompassing traditional Malian music, afrobeat, and blues (‘African blues, not American blues‘, we were informed) in a display of virtuosic performances ensuring that Liverpool’s love affair with Africa continuesKouyaté‘s last appearance in Liverpool may well have been the legendary show from Damon Albarn‘s project Africa Express at the Liverpool Olympia in 2008. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another seven years to see him again.

Photos by Getintothis’ Marty Saleh