Skirball Concert Review: Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba = Ngoni Power!!

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Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba at the Skirball Cultural Center. (Photo by Camellia Tse) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The ngoni is the Malian ancestor of the banjo (the word banjo itself being of Congolese origin). In the Malian Manding language, ‘Ba’ means ‘power.’ Bassekou Kouyaté and his band, Ngoni ba, deliver exactly that: massive musical power—organic and acoustic. It’s African power at its greatest.

Malian ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyaté’s concert last Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center was—for me—not only the best concert of this summer (so far), but one of the best shows I have ever seen in my life. It ranks right up there with King Sunny Ade at the Palladium back in 1983; the first Fela show at the Olympic Auditorium in 1986; and a handful of other shows that have their place at the top of my list.

Bassekou Kouyaté & Amy Sacko
Bassekou Kouyaté and Amy Sacko. (Photo by Camellia Tse) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Ngoni Ba is essentially the Kouyaté family band: Bassekou and his wife, Amy Sacko (an incredible singer), together with their sons, nephews, brothers, and cousins have the sort of musical telepathy and tightness that comes from having played together over a long period of time. The Kouyaté family are descended from a long lineage of griots (poets, musicians, oral historians, keepers of the flame) that date back to the 14th century, singing for kings and royalty. Some of the songs performed last Thursday were over 500-years-old.

This band played so wonderfully together, producing such a forceful sound that was trance-like, enveloping both senses and psyche. The songs started fast and would end on a dime, making you forget that you’d already been dancing for an hour, and that your feet were dead tired. I found myself propelled by the powerful groove into state of physical bliss.  I’m rarely get this swept away.

It was a full crowd that showed up that night with almost half the audience dancing before the stage. In front of me, there was a young kid bobbing to the rhythm—I just love seeing things like that. The Skirball is such a fantastic outdoor venue, and their free Sunset Concert series draws people of all ages every summer. They are truly communal events.

I’m also looking forward to former Honduran politician/singer-songwriter Aurélio Martinez’s Sunset Series concert at the Skirball next Thursday, August 13. He’ll bring his Afro-Caribbean folk melodies and rhythms of the Garifuna tradition. The Garifuna are descendents of the Caribs, who were exiled from their own St. Vincent island in 1796 by British colonialists to settle throughout the Caribbean coast. It is perhaps the most African culture in the Americas. The evening will open with a DJ set by my good friend, Betto Arcos.

Then on August 27, the Skirball presents Nova Lima. Afro-Peruvian groove doesn’t get much better than that. The different shows Daniel Soto has programmed will appeal to just about every musical sensibility, so be sure to check their schedule of upcoming Sunset Concerts here.

Big thanks to Skirball Program Coordinator Daniel Soto and all of the hard-working folks at the Skirball Cultural Center for such a great summer series. LA is the better for it!

KCRW DJ Tom Schnabel with Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba. (Photo by Camellia Tse)

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