My mind was totally, terminally blown at last year's Savannah Music Festival performance by Bela Fleck and his African guest musicians. The depth of mastery and feeling shown by those African masters was so profound, so beyond Western norms, so unlike anything else I'd ever heard, that other forms of music seem to pale in comparison for me now.
So of course I've been jonesing with anticipation this entire edition of the Festival, waiting on this past Saturday's finale: Bassekou Kouyate, Mali's chief musical export and the world's best player of the n'goni, a sort of African lute that is a forerunner to the banjo.
I was not disappointed. I've seen many, many dozens of concerts, perhaps hundreds, in my life. If this wasn't the best, it was easily in the top three in terms of sheer musical mastery, feeling and exuberance.
Tall, handsome, and very much in control of the stage, Kouyate -- several other Kouyate family members perform with him -- plays the n'goni exactly as a banjo is played: thumb and first two fingers pluck in rapid, blinding succession, while the left hand generally stays in one position rather than moving up and down the neck. The similarity ends there, however.
Kouyate's rhymic and melodic dexterity on this deceptively simple, almost primitive instrument encompassed an entire universe of music. Mali is a musical melting pot -- at the edge of the Sahara, containing the fabled Timbuktu, a crossroads of Arabic, African, and French traditions -- and Kouyate's playing reflected that and then some.
Bits of Africa, bits of Tuareg desert music, bits of Muslim muezzin calls, and bits of ancestral blues, complete with string-bending. (And -- pinch me, I think I'm dreaming -- at one point I swear he ran his n'goni through an honest-to-God wah-wah pedal!)
Three additional n'goni players -- with instruments of various timbre, similar to a mariachi band's different sized guitars -- supplemented the sound, even challenging the master himself on some solos. Two amazing percussionists provided a chunky yet nimble backbeat.
Particularly delightful were the sultry, lilting vocals of Kouyate's wife, Amy Sacko, who like her husband blends Arabic and African flavor. (Her stardom in Mali is almost equal to her husband's; with a voice and looks like hers, this is hardly surprising.)
While of course the bulk of the too-short set comprised African tunes sung in the Malian Bambara tongue, Kouyate brought out his opening act, Bill Frisell, for a faux cutting session, n'goni against electric guitar. Impressively, Frisell nearly held his own in the duel, though one has to assume the smiling Kouyate was holding back.
(At the risk of overcommercializing this review, I have to recommend to you Kouyate's two CDs, I Speak Fula and Segu Blue. Unlike so many world music recordings -- a genre which seems to particularly suffer in translation from stage to digital -- these CDs capture some of the raw essence and spontaneous exuberance of Kouyate's heady live performances.)
And of opening act Bill Frisell: I personally enjoyed his blend of experimental jazz and electrified blues, though many in the crowd were clearly not comfortable being musically challenged in this way, and said so out loud.
With a sound that was a hazy throwback to Haight-Ashbury in 1969, Frisell and his standup bassist and drummer played to each other rather than to the crowd, jazz-style. The opening prog/jazz number sequed into a delightful, understated "Moon River." Frisell's last number was a particularly juicy, electrified Delta blues tune, old-school open tuning and all.
The whole vibe took me back to those old Athens house parties back in the day, where the music just goes and goes, with people rotating on and off instruments all night long. And if some folks around here can't handle it, that's gonna have to remain their problem, not mine, because I loved it all. -- Jim Morekis