When I initially started posting digitized tapes of West African pop music I waited for the right moment to post my recording of Sekou Kouyate, whose image (until yesterday) adorned the top of this blog. While the moment right now might not be significantly more right than any in the past, it is as good a time as any to finally post Sekou's tape. What's more is that this session was recorded probably within a week or two, five years ago in Yanfolila, Mali (May, 2007).
At the time I spent several hours everyday with Sekou doing anything from eating lunch, talking with Papa Sidibe's friends at the garage next to the market, playing checkers with Ancien Coulibaly's family at home, playing kamelengoni for a few hours everyday, and talking about music all over about a two month period. Together we built an instrument for myself (he did just about all of the work) and we started hammering out songs, which are typically just any number of variations on central rhythms/melodies. Sekou barely spoke a word of French and I spoke even less of Bamana, so communication involved a lot of hand-waving and head-nodding-affirmations implying that we understood each other or at least had a vague enough idea to start piecing together whatever was being expressed. Over the two months, with the help of some in-betweeners, we were able to learn quite a bit from each other.
In total I learned rhythms in three tunings. He taught songs by playing them and expecting me to figure it out and jump in when I could, which worked out more often than not. Sometimes what he was playing was just too crazy to be able to just "figure it out" and Sekou had the incredible ability to break the song down to it's most base parts and play them over and over until he was numb (thanks Sekou). Once I could finally fall in sync with the rhythm, he'd start throwing out variations on top of everything and screw me up. Everyday we'd run through every song we learned, and the list grew everyday. Meanwhile all the kids at the house would be running around screaming, crying, dancing, fighting, playing soccer. Ancien would be dozing, laying down next to his handheld radio on a mat under a thatch canopy to protect from the direct sun, donkey's screaming themselves hoarse, women pounding grain into powder or scrubbing clothes on a washboard..
Meeting Sekou was just as lucky and random as meeting the person who introduced me to him. I had some Senegalese friends in Bamako whose neighbor had moved to the city from Yanfolila, in the southwest corner of Mali, and the largest town in the Wassoulou region. I initially heard donso music exploding out of the blown speakers of a Taxi, then told the neighbor from Wassoulou that I wanted to learn about donsongoni music and the instrument and to make recordings (even though I had heard the donso musicians wouldn't let you record them, (but I really think they would if circumstances were right)). At the time I really didn't know much about the kamelengoni (pictured below) or have much interest in it, even after having listened to some of the remastered Oumou Sangare albums and known about Issa Bagayoko and Kokanko Sata, whose pop/dance music didn't really resonate with me (although the Honest Jon's release of Kokanko Sata's album is awesome acoustic music). All of a sudden this friend was on the phone with one of her friends in Yanfolila and said that I would be coming down and needed a place to stay. His response was "what do white people eat?". By some glorious moment of chance this neighbor had called Papa Sidibe, who turned out to be one of the most genuinely kind people I've ever known. It was through Papa I was eventually introduced to Sekou Kouyate, a local player. (Here's Papa at work).
Sekou plays in the older, original style of Wassoulou kamelengoni which is more similar to stuff heard on Coumba Sidibe's early tapes, or Alou Fane and Sali Sidibe, Bintou Sidibe, Allata Broulaye, and Oumou Sangare, and even Seydou Kamara as well (who is newer), rooted in the hunter's mystique and power. A little more straight ahead driving rhythm than newer players on records like those of Djoss Samake, Souley Kante, Nabintou Diakite, Mariam Sidibe, or Doussou Bagayoko to name a few, whose are more melodically driven (by more strings) than straight hard rhythm. Maybe analogous to country-blues versus slick Chicago blues, who share a direct line, like that of Wassoulou kamelengoni versus Bamako kamelengoni, which was influenced by other cultures mashed up within the city.
Sekou's fast personality translates directly to his playing style, too. He drives it fast and hard and his variations and solos are sitting right on top of the beat. He's up in your face and stepping on your heels if you can't keep up. Even the dancing style that goes with both donsongoni and kamelengoni music is fast and light off the ground. Watch the dancers a few minutes into this amazing video provided by Ngoniba, dancing during a donso event; they kick their heels into the air on the accented beats and shuffle their feet to every single triplet the ngoni player can roll out in-between, kicking up clouds of dust, almost floating above the ground. It also reminds me of a bull setting it's hooves before a charge, kicking up dust right before it explodes with pure energy, the moment the dancers drop out of the spotlight in the video.
That Sekou electrified his instrument does not make him unique. His little speaker spit out a grungy, distorted, gnarly sound that had an amazing effect (not entirely distinguishing by itself, either). I had been playing with him for weeks, unplugged at Coulibaly's house, before the first time I heard him plug in at a party (using someone else's huge sound system powered by a generator, under a mango tree. A crowd of at least a few dozen people, lots of children, circled around us on a dusty street corner and the one spotlight suspended on a branch of the mango tree illuminated all their eyes and teeth against the pitch-black night. Sekou gave me a small speaker that could thankfully barely be heard over his, as I played next to him and Solo, who ground out the rhythm on the metal tube (they called karinye). As people danced inches in front of us, dust would obscure everything until the girl returned to pour water down on the ground to keep anymore from kicking up), and my mind was absolutely blown.
The recording I made was two months after we started to play together. Day to day it was just me and Sekou, but during performances Solo Sidibe, Sekou's tube player, came to play. I'd run into him around town too but when we talked about recording he was rather reluctant to be recorded. The day I was going to record them, Solo went to work in the fields chopping mangoes for the market. So Sekou scrambled to find Yoro Diallo (not the famous one), who used to play the tube with Sekou (but wasn't as good, according to Sekou). We made the recording out of the normal milieu that Sekou would play, meaning there was no audience beyond me recording, and Papa and Ancien watching as Sekou and Yoro played for over an hour inside an unfinished, open ceilinged mud-brick house with fresh and old donkey shit everywhere. That place had amazing acoustics, though. I think the unfortunate part of recording in isolation like this was that Sekou wasn't influenced by dancers, who could push the musicians into playing more intensely so that they dance more furiously (watch the video above and tell me you wouldn't feel intensifying energy as a musician or dancer). I made the decision to record in this setting, without background noise, because the microphone I was using would pick up everything that made a noise, drowning out the instrument with children screaming and crying, donkeys hee-hawing, and men greeting each other, endlessly asking about each others family and work, as they do. To balance the sound with the limited equipment I had at my disposal (Sony Minidisc MZ-RH10) I had Yoro sit a few feet further back than Sekou (who did all the singing), and put Sekou's speaker in front of him, closer to me, to balance all the sound...again, not the most natural setting. But listen to the recording and you'd never know, because it's clear that natural or not, these guys came to fucking play. It is, afterall, their profession and trade.
I don't know how many people besides me, if any, Sekou has taught to play. We played on instruments with 6 strings, while most modern pop musicians have at least 8, and I've seen up to 14 (although at that point the playing becomes to melodic that it can start to sound like kora music to me, exception being someone like Vieux Kante who plays many strings but maintains fundamentals of kamelengoni music). Sekou's set up is pictured below.
From what I can tell the electronics he rigged up are mostly homemade. The pickup that sits on the bridge-piece that anchors the strings against the head of the gourd looked to be made out of the metal disc inside a digital wrist-watch, with wires soldered on to connect it to a guitar chord input. The cord plugs into the 6x D-battery pre-amp that looks to be home built, too. This is then wired into the grungy stereo speaker that spits out the fuzzy sound. The neck is made from a broom handle, although mine was a straight bamboo-ish type stick. The guitar-style tuning heads were carved from the same type of wood and a the holes were burned through the neck with an iron rod that cooks red hot in a bed of coals. The skin is from antelope and the cross bars supporting the skin and those that you grab while playing are made from bamboo too. The bridge is just a piece of wood cut to shape with smaller holes burned through in two columns of three strings (or however many total). I used 3mm climbing cord to anchor my bridge from the sides and rear, while people used all sorts of other alternatives, from metal wire to cotton string (common in the Bamako market). The strings themselves are typically high gauge nylon fishing line.
I think kamelengoni music naturally creates a feeling of a sort of country-bounce, trotting and skipping down a dusty road, with quick jittery flurries of melodic rhythm. It is when the little fills and quick fluttery variations are thrown on top of that base, trotting rhythm, which can already be complexly organized and timed (off syncopations, staccato rhythms, with muted and open strings playing against each other) that keeps the music endlessly interesting and individual to the player; no one plays the instrument the same. I think it was in either an interview with or an article by Graeme Councel that I read about how important and encouraged improvisation is throughout Mande music. What I like about Sekou's style is how spaced-out it can get during the obvious extended and improvised sections of his dance music. He'll keep a root rhythm going, just hammering out the muted rhythm like someone could clap on a bass string, while at the same time he let other strings drone and play out into overtones, or use harmonics to pierce space.
Enjoy the tape! And it also just occurred to me that some of you may have missed Aichata Sidibe's great cassette that I snuck into the end of an unrelated post about art.
Here is some other interesting info about Sekou. One thing that occasionally made conversation difficult with Sekou was that he had a severe speech impediment; he would stutter harshly through some sentences. Someone described Sekou as being too quick. While he may have struggled in some conversations, he was flawless while singing and playing music (I don't understand Bamana well enough to know what exactly he's saying, but I can't hear any stuttering). I attribute this to something I saw him do one day. While sitting at the garage on a market day as well as the day of a performance, Sekou sat down with a half-gourd (a bowl) and a tied bag of fresh cow milk. No one seemed comfortable explaining the whole thing to me, and I'm not sure if it's because they thought I wouldn't understand or if they were actually uncomfortable talking about spirits and other mystical realms for which Mali and much of West Africa is partly known. What was explained was that Sekou takes the gourd and milk out to the forest to protect himself. That coupled with him wearing leather bands around his biceps and waist, and wearing a leather-bound mirror around his neck, I'm willing to believe it. It's not inconceivable to think he may have made these trips to the forest in part to aid with his speech, as his profession was public performance. (Anything people had to say about wearing the mirror was: "If you see someone wearing a mirror around their neck, be careful").
Sekou's father is fairly a fairly well known griot among people in Yanfolila, and Sekou was frequently hired to play in some of the surrounding villages. He wanted me to play alongside him for his performances within Yanfolila, which I did about 4. Every time peoples' reactions were the same: "what the hell is this guy doing here?". I think the party of French bird hunters were most upset because they wanted an "authentic" experience. (The soccer field on which we played was behind their building and the field was littered with feathers and bones). For performances outside of Yanfolila, in the villages, he would leave so suddenly. He and his rhythm guy Solo Sidibe would ride bikes miles out into the forest to a village to play for a night and come back pretty haggard in the morning. It would have been wild to travel to a show with him but I never did.
Back to Sekou's father/family for a moment: one day I was asking about Sekou's family history and we didn't have anyone to help translate between us as we got into the gritty details that were harder to express beyond vague hand-waving. What I took away from that conversation was that Sekou's family (not just in name), played for some important people in Kankan back in the day. If you listened to the music program about Mali on Afropop's Hipdeep website, you'll remember professor Cherif Keita telling us that after the Mande empire had passed, Songhai royalty and nobility were groomed in Kankan, Guinee before going up to the northern territory. Perhaps Sekou's family were involved with the royalty around Kankan at the time. Or, less appealing but probably more realistic is that maybe Sekou didn't understand my question and told me that he grew up in Kankan and his dad moved to Yanfolila (not very far away and the main road goes straight there). When I returned to Yanfolila to visit Papa in 2008, I was trying to track Sekou down and I eventually learned he was somewhere in Bamako playing for money. In order to track down his brother, wife, and kids in search of some sort of contact info, it was easiest for Papa and other friends to first ask for his locally well known father, who was a respected griot, and then inquire about Sekou. Some people liked to joke and say, "Ah, Sekou? You mean Jeliba Kunjan" as they erupted with laughter. (The Griot with the Big Head...but his head really wasn't that big). Unfortunately none of his family had a phone number or any way to contact Sekou in Bamako. Recently though, I talked to Papa on the phone and he told me Sekou came back, but I've yet to talk to him. Before I returned home in 2008 I left a small guitar amp and spot-pickup with Papa to give to Sekou, which would be as equally transportable but significantly louder than his set up that I saw.
Some day I would love to go back and visit, coup or no coup (there was a recent coup d'etat in Mali). I still keep telephone contact with Papa and other friends from the University of Bamako when I was working in the HIV lab. They tell me that aside from all the news about the recent coup and the declaration of Azawad independece, their lives haven't been affected too severely. A few were even happy to see then president Amadou Toumani Toure get kicked out of office just a few weeks before he was going to step down anyway for the next round of democratic elections. While symbolic, I think it was just silly timing...forcing out the president just weeks before a scheduled election?
I am also fairly skeptical about how this is all going to pan out in the long term. I get the impression that the lingering presence of coup leader Amadou Sanogo foreshadows continued activity. And at first he was asking for help to push back the Touareg, and now he is rejecting any assistance from ECOWAS? Doesn't make sense (the stated reason to throw a coup was dissatisfaction with the amount of resources invested in the Malian military to defend against the occasional Touareg unrest in the north, as well as widespread corruption and inactivity of the governing body). The most interesting thing to me about the Touareg's recent push is how it came to be in the first place. The Touareg have felt marginalized since Mali's independence in the early 1960's and would occasionally launch a "rebellion" to no significant effect. This recent push and march to take over the northern territories in Mali and officially declare independence was made possible indirectly by the late Lybian dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The Touareg have supported Gaddafi in return for his support for their movement. And now, even in death Gaddafi was able to destabilize a country thousands of miles away, connected by vast expanses of desert. The Touareg took control of abandoned Lybian weapons caches stashed throughout the desert to help arm their independence movement and reinvigorate it enough to overwhelm whatever Malian military was in place (not much and poorly equipped, hence dissatisfaction and eventual coup), and to take over the entire northern territory of Mali, down to Timbuktu, which is collectively known as Azawad (their political/"rebellious" name is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad).
We can thank the Berlin conference, who sliced and diced that great African cake into what it is now!
Anyway, if you've read this far you're very patient. Hopefully you got something out of it.