I Speak Fula is the name of the new album from Malian ngoni player and singer Bassekou Kouyate; the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2007 debut, Segu Blue. I caught up with Bassekou while he was in London on a brief promo trip last week, and threw a few questions at him.
These days, it seems that if you’re into African music in any way, you’re inundated with artists from Mali. What is it about your country that’s made it so prominent musically overseas?
Bassekou: Well, Mali is a very rich country musically because it’s a multi-ethnic country, and every group has their own music. The Bambara, the Malinke, the Sarakole, so many others… each has their own music. It’s from that rich cultural heritage that we take our inspiration. That’s one of the factors that have made Mali such a rich country musically. And because our parents and ancestors have put in a lot of work, we haven’t even exploited everything yet.
So there’s more to come, then?
There is indeed! For example, on this album, I have called an elder musician, Dramane Ze Konate, who plays an instrument called an mpolon. He played it at Mali’s independence in 1960 for Modibo Keïta, our first president. He came and played that same instrument on the album so that people can hear it and discover it. It’s not an instrument that’s well known.
As far as your own musical journey goes, how did it all begin?
When I was young, grew up with my father, Moustapha Kouyate, who was a great ngoni player, and my mother Yakare Damba, who was a great singer. My father would give ngoni lessons to his children, and the girls would learn to sing as my mother did. There were many students in that group. I found playing the ngoni very easy, so I was easily bored because some of the other students were having a hard time learning how to repeat and repeat and repeat. So I lost interest and went off to play football.
One day at home, I was sitting in my room, just playing all the ngoni lessons we had learnt off by heart – all alone in my room. My father heard that and knocked on my door. He asked, ‘What are you playing? Are you by yourself?’ I said ‘yes.’ And he said, ‘As a child, you mustn’t sit in a dark room and play ngoni by yourself. Come outside.’ He said to my mother, ‘Don’t force him to play the ngoni anymore. There’s no point being angry; I can already tell that this child will be a great ngoni player one day.’
How do your own albums fit into this master plan to expose Mali music to the world?
I started with my debut album, Segu Blue – which I did so that people would know about the ngoni, and know about my region. Usually, when people think about the music of Africa, they associate it with the kora and the drums. I wanted to let people know that the ngoni exists, and that it was around even before the birth of Christ. It’s a very old instrument that was used in our region only, and I wanted to bring it out, so that people would know about it – and about my region… and to get to know Bassekou as well.
The story behind the title track is that in Mali, we have many ethnic groups; it’s a very multi-ethnic country. The song is the story of a young Bamana man who falls in love with a Peul (Fula) woman. One day, he called her over and said, ‘Really, I find you very beautiful.’ She said, ‘What? You find me beautiful? But you’re Bamana and I’m Peul!’ He replied, ‘But if you come with me to my room, you’ll find out that I speak Peul!’ basically, the title is a way of saying no to racism and making differences between peoples.
You also get a bit political on the album – mainly on the song ‘Jamana be Diya’…
That song isn’t really about politics in a strict sense, but it’s more about unity and peace. When there’s a war, innocents die; people get angry… it’s better to have unity and peace. We mention Barack Obama in the song, because people in the USA united behind him to let him become President – and he’s a black man as well. This song’s a way to say that democracy can be a good system.
There are also some very personal songs on the album – both very happy and very sad. On the sad end, there’s ‘Saro’…
Yes. Saro is my brother. There are five boys in my family – same mother, same father – and Saro was my youngest brother. He was always helping me a lot. When people came to record – for example, when Lucy Duran and Jerry Boys came to Mali to produce the album – he would bring them; take them to their hotel, run errands if they needed something from the market. He would drive, pick people up… he helped with so many things. And he never asked for anything in return.
One day, he was getting a camera for somebody. On the way back, he was hit by a car. He fell on his head and was bleeding, but instead of calling for an ambulance, the people who saw it went and picked his pockets, took his cell phone and left him there. It was only much later, after he’d lost a lot of blood that someone called for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. He was taken there; he had my card on him and also those of other family members, but no one called us. He died in the hospital and was taken to the morgue. Still nobody called us. All his cards were taken away and he was left there.
In the meantime, back at home everyone was wondering what had happened to him and why he hadn’t come back. He’d never done something like this before. Back at home, they’d left him some tea, some chicken… all the food was still there, untouched. Even t he television was still on. So we went looking for him. We went everywhere – the Police station, the hospital… in the hospital, some people said that he’d been there, but they couldn’t tell us anything. Maybe he wasn’t very ill; maybe he’s left – we don’t know where he is. So we continued searching until we found him at the morgue.
I just wanted to write a song – partly as a homage, and to thank him. At the same time, I wanted to use the song to let people know to wear helmets, and also to say to people that when someone has an accident, call the ambulance immediately – don’t pick the victim’s pocket! I don’t want this to happen to somebody else. I’ve also set up a foundation to let young people and children know how to act in these circumstances. It’s called the Saro foundation.
And on a happier note, there’s a song for your wife.
Yeah, Amy! (Amy Sacko) She’s a very kind, very beautiful woman. She’s supported me all this time, and has given me many children. We’ve never had any problems since we started living together. So the song is just to thank her, because she’s a kind, intelligent woman, beautiful and with a good heart.