Bassekou Kouyate will be the first to tell you that his English is not so good. But when you can mesmerize an audience with your instrumentation, you really don't need words.
Kouyate's performance last night with his band, Ngoni Ba, is what entertainment is all about. The music was absolutely amazing. The College of Charleston Cistern was jam-packed with an audience that enthusiastically agreed. Each song was received with applause and cheers, people were up and dancing, passersby outside the Cistern were lined up along the gate to listen, and Kouyate and his band received a standing ovation both at the conclusion of the show and after returning to the stage for an encore.
"Hey, you want more?" Kouyate asked upon his return to the stage. "You want one, two, three more songs?"
Oh, yeah, we wanted more. Kouyate and Ngoni Ba were more than happy to oblige, toweling off the sweat, picking up their instruments, and launching right back into some sweet rocking sounds from a far away land.
The music was traditional Mali music with a healthy dose of showmanship. Kouyate is famous (perhaps even notorious) in his own country for being the griot, or ngoni-playing storyteller, who stood up and began to play his instrument in the style we associate with rock guitarists rather than simply sitting on the floor and playing as others have done for centuries.
Think of it as West Africa's response to the call of American blues. It is a foreign sound to be sure, but music is called the universal language for a reason. When it's this good, it smacks you right upside the head, pulls you up out of your seat, and sets your body in motion.
Kouyate explained in English the meaning of a few of the songs and apologized for not being better able to express himself in English. "Sounds fine to us!" a voice shouted from somewhere in the crowd. "We love you!" shouted another voice.
They played modern works as well as songs from centuries ago that were written for royalty. "You know, like Big Boss Obama!" Kouyate clarified while introducing one of those songs. He smiled and laughed, making it obvious that this is a band that loves to make fun. It's a true mark of mastery of a craft when you can pepper in the playfulness and jokes right alongside the virtuoso performance.
"But tonight you are the kings and queens we perform to," Kouyate said.
The individual musicians of Ngoni Ba, including several other strings players, two percussionists, and Kouyate's wife, Amy Sacko, on vocals, took turns delivering solos throughout the night to the wild approval of the crowd.
One percussionist had legs that just could not keep still; he was jumping, kicking, and pelvic thrusting song after song. When he danced to the front of the stage with a rooster-like strut, his hands a blur in front of his drum, he had the whole crowd hooked. It was an amazing sight to see.
Sacko's vocals ranged from the sublime to the deep and powerful: it's obvious why she has been called "the Tina Turner of Mali." Her dance style was subtle, yet enthralling, and she, too, had the whole audience tied to a string on the end of her little finger. Whenever she motioned, we responded. She's that good.
For those who might have been unsure of what to expect, or who may have thought this would be a quiet night of simple folk tunes, this was an eye-opening performance. Easily one of the best acts at Spoleto this year, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba are welcome to return to Charleston as often as they like. It's safe to say that they will be packing the crowd in every time that they do.