An apology is necessary at the outset, because this reviewer witnessed most of this gig in glimpses through the dancing bodies that Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba summoned up from their seats like souls from dead bodies, so any deficiencies in this recounting of that show can be blamed on that fact. For anyone unfamiliar with Malian music it can largely be explained by its position on the continent, making use of both the waivering Arabic tones of the North and the more upbeat and colourful sounds of Sub-Saharan Africa. Tonight in the Sugar Club, Bassekou and Ngoni Ba are ambassadors of that sound.
The six members of Ngoni Ba, all members of Bassekou’s family, arrive on-stage dressed all in green, two on percussion and three on different sized ngonis. Ngonis are three-stringed instruments said to be a very early ancestor of the modern banjo and when Bassekou appears later he has the smallest of the lot. These are the only melodious instruments we will hear all night, which is unbelievable when the entire experience of the night is recalled, such is their diversity. The band plays a medley of songs to open and when it’s done you feel like you’ve been to the Sahara your mouth is so dry from hanging open in pure awe.
But this is only the beginning and it’s at the point when Bassekou appears on-stage with a poncho over his green outfit and his ngoni the size of a wooden spoon – as its described by one of the organisers – and one of the other ngonis is knocking out a sound inseparable from that of a Caribbean steel-drum, and after everybody with a soul in the venue has felt a tingle up their spine from the deep rhythms coming from the Calabash hand drum, that the small area before the stage is mobbed.
Everyone on-stage gets an opportunity to show what they can do and they all do it flawlessly, confidently and with so much joy that it becomes overpowering. Jama ko is a great showcase for Amy Sacko’s wonderful voice, while Jonkoloni takes her commanding stage presence to the audience and they get the men and women to compete for who can sing the loudest “a-ha”. It is with Ngoni Fola however that arguably the gig’s highest point occurs – and there are many many high points – as Bassekou’s nephew launches a tama talking drum under his arm and beats it with so much personality and attitude, his chin propelled outwards, that everything becomes taken beyond the limits of any normal gig. The joy on his face as the audience cheers his drumming is so pure that it feels like he’s drawing on them, beating all the room’s energy into his little drum with such passion that you feel he must be able to wander out into the desert with it and live off it.
The encore, a truly desired one, is the one moment Bassekou sits and he uses his tiny little three-string instrument to play the African blues, a style made popular by his compatriot Ali Farka Touré. Muddy Waters’ ghost lurks just off-stage, with a satisfied “mhmm” coming from either him or Bassekou, it’s hard to tell. A second and third encore allow the band to return for some fun percussion jams, soaking up the ever-so-deserved goodwill they have drawn from the crowd.
Bassekou’s English is not of the highest standard, and while he’s an effortless showman his crowd interactions heavily revolve around “thank you so much” and “are you happy?” A glimpse behind the happiness in his music comes through when he gets around to talking about the peace that has recently come to his home country. He raises his fist triumphantly in the air and says “democracy, droites des femmes, droites des hommes, no Islamists, no Sharia, come to Mali,” and for anyone in the Sugar Club who never had a reason to go to Mali before, Bassekou Kouyate has certainly changed that for them forever.