Over a ticking calabash beat Bassekou Kouyaté, Ousmane Ag Mossa, the frizzy-haired frontman of Tamikrest, and the Songhai bandleader Sidi Touré traded riffs. Kouyaté’s ngoni gave way to Ag Mossa’s high, lyrical electric guitar; Touré’s acoustic took up the thread. “Thank you, thank you – magique,” said Kouyaté, with a wave of acknowledgment as the song ended to applause from all six people in the Barbican’s cavernous hall. Ninety minutes before curtain up, this was the trio’s one and only run-through.
Sprawled on a scarlet sofa in his dressing room, Kouyaté focused on the symbolic message of the concert’s line-up, his ngoni big band with Tamikrest’s Touraeg guitars and Touré’s Songhai blues. “Mali is one and indivisible,” he insisted.
Mali is undergoing two simultaneous crises. A Tuareg secessionist movement in the north of the country has been hijacked by a coalition of local drug lords and Islamic militants, who have imposed sharia law and prohibited music; the rebels were practically at the gates of Bamako before French soldiers pushed them back. Over the past weekend, major cities have been recaptured (although in the desert, capturing cities is only part of the battle).
Mali’s president Amadou Toumani Touré, who was accused of not prosecuting the war with sufficient vigour, was deposed in a military coup last March. ATT was a patron of Kouyaté’s and still phones him from luxurious exile in Dakar. “ATT said no, he didn’t want war. That’s why he was deposed.”
Kouyaté insists on national unity. “All the good Malians want the terrorists to go. If the north leaves, Mali is finished.” Like many of his southern compatriots, he dismisses the Tuaregs’ desire for independence. “There are 40 different ethnic groups in Mali – does everyone get their own country? Who benefits from separation? No one.”
The concert started with the collaboration rehearsed earlier. It settled into the Malian pattern: the lead musician plays a phrase on his instrument; another copies it on his, and the interplay continues with increasing complexity until the junior partner concedes. Kouyaté is sometimes on the receiving end from Toumani Diabaté; here he lorded it genially over Ag Mossa.
Sidi Touré is from the city of Gao, until a few days ago in the hands of the Islamists. (Earlier, it had been announced that its airport had been recaptured, and the audience had cheered as if hearing a far-off football result.) Touré’s unspectacular blues were lifted out of the ordinary by his own ngoni player. By the end, his music was making explicit connections with America: a keening country blues that could have been a lost 78, and a finale with Touré playing a John Lee Hooker bassline while the ngoni howled.
Tamikrest are one of the Tuareg bands that play the music known simply as “Guitar”. Ag Mossa’s electric playing was counterpointed by a French ringer, Paul Salvagnac, who broke out of the desert ambience to serve up some Pink Floydisms as an introduction to “Outamachek”. Tamikrest’s secret weapon was Wonou Walet Sidati, whose ululations, with added echo, had the power of shrieks.
Kouyaté’s band was a man down, his son Mamadou sleeping off an illness at their hotel. But his other son Moustafa stepped up, and with the complement of crackling talking drum, the music was as intense as ever. Kouyaté’s wife Ami Sacko sang commandingly, with Kouyaté himself taking response vocals. Kouyaté’s ngoni playing, as ever, peeled away from the music into an ecstatic realm of its own.
A couple of songs as yet unfamiliar to the audience burned with incendiary force. Both were prompted directly by the crisis: “Ne Me Fatigue Pas” was metallic and shredded, an account of the confusion surrounding the early days of the coup. (Kouyaté had just settled down to start recording the album when he heard gunfire in the streets.) By contrast, “Jamako” was a measured plea for all Malians to join a big conversation. “Sharia chez nous?” demanded Kouyaté? “Pourquoi?”
At the end, all the musicians crowded back on stage. Although the star power was already more than adequate, Kouyaté conjured up the cerebral maverick Rokia Traoré from the audience to share vocals with Sacko and Walet Sidati, and the groove wound on.