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Bassekou Kouyate / Tamikrest / Sidi Toure: London, January 26, 2013

Chris May By

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Bassekou Kouyate / Tamikrest / Sidi Toure
Barbican
London
January 26, 2013

Ten days earlier, the vibe at this Malian package show—billed as Sahara Soul—would likely have been jumpy rather than joyful. The northern half of Mali seemed secure in the hands of Islamist invaders, who were intent on destroying the region's indigenous music and culture and poised to move south and take the Malian capital, Bamako.

But, on January 26, 2013, the mood onstage at the Barbican was unmistakably celebratory. Following intervention by the French military, the Islamists had been driven north and a combined French and Malian force was poised to retake Timbuktu, the last major town in the hands of the invaders.

It is good to see these barbarous oafs getting routed, and headliner Bassekou Kouyate, leading his six-piece band Ngoni Ba, was not shy about saying so. In a dignified and heartfelt address to the audience halfway through the set, Kouyate, speaking in a mixture of English and French, denounced the imposition of sharia law on Mali and thanked the French for their action.

The set itself was largely taken from Ngoni Ba's recent, third album, the roots-based but outward looking Jama Ko (Out Here, 2013). On the disc, Kouyate—playing an electric ngoni with the amp frequently turned up to eleven—sounds deliciously like guitarist Muddy Waters on his psychedelicised 1968 album, Electric Mud (Chess/Cadet). And so it was onstage at the Barbican. Intensely visceral, driven by the relentless eighth-notes of Moctar Kouyate's calabash, and supported by another two electric ngoni players and his wife, the singer Aminata Sacko, Kouyate's playing raised the familiar question: Where does West African desert blues stop and US Delta blues start? As his countryman, the late guitarist Ali Farka Toure proved long ago, answering that question will keep the ethnomusicologists busy for an eternity.

The evening opened with blinding set from guitarist Sidi Toure and his four piece band: two guitars, an ngoni and a calabash. Resonances with Delta blues were again much to the fore, though the absence of the sonic inventiveness which marks Ngoni Ba's music made for a slightly less jaw-dropping experience. In retrospect anyway. At the time it sounded just dandy.

Toure was followed by the Touareg band Tamikrest. A six-piece including electric guitars, bass guitar and, occasionally, kit drums rather than a calabash, Tamikrest's music—like that of Touareg bands Tinariwen and Terakaft—is more rock and roll than bluesy. The piercing ululations of female singer Aghaly Ag Mohamedine, initially rather too piercing, began to make sense as the set progressed, hitting the same spot as the cries of Spanish flamenco singers. The ethnomusicologists could spend another eternity untangling flamenco from North and West African music.

The evening was a huge success, and the sold-out auditorium had a ball.

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