TWO OF 2009'S most widely beloved, critically adored, and forward-thinking records pulled heavily from African influences. The eccentric, electronic swirl of Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion is stacked with polyrhythm, while Dave Longstreth's contrapuntal, West African-styled guitar picking darts all over the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca. And they aren't the only ones.
"There's some sort of '80s, African zeitgeist going on right now," Longstreth told the Onion AV Club late last year. But rather than the plucky picking Longstreth prefers, the more prominent sound du jour is of clattering, layered, polyrhythmic percussion.
The African infatuation, however, goes beyond rhythm and technique. Brooklyn's Antibalas have devoted themselves to preserving Fela Kuti's afrobeat style with pristine purity. Vampire Weekend, on the other hand, penned the ridiculous "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," which former Mercury Music Editor Julianne Shepherd labeled a "deplorable... mutated bourgeois fantasy" in the Village Voice.
While hipster America's romance with West African music may not last long—blogs forever demand the next new trend—a live look at the source is long overdue (in fairness, there aren't a lot of options). There's no better opportunity than with Malian Bassekou Kouyate. The current styles are literally in his blood.
Kouyate is a griot, the world's original troubadour. He plays the ngoni, a precursor to the banjo. "It's the same instrument that my father played, that my grandfather played, that my great-grandfather played, and even beyond that," Kouyate explains to me through an interpreter. "It's a tradition that's been worked upon since before the time of even Jesus Christ."
Griots are responsible for sharing knowledge of history, politics, religion, and relationships—the African equivalents of our Woody Guthries, Pete Seegers, and Bob Dylans, if you will. But rather than being shunned by the power structure, griots were honored. During the Malian Empire of the 14th century, each family of warrior-kings was linked to a family of griots. Today they are used to soothe conflict between villages, or even between a husband and wife. "In general," says Kouyate, "we call a griot to counsel us."
And although he is heir to a musical lineage that dates back thousands of years, Kouyate is an innovator—not altogether different from the likes of Animal Collective or the Dirty Projectors. "My father had his own style, my grandfather had his own style, I have my own style," he says. "Everything has to evolve and we have to make it work for everyone."
Historically, ngoni pieces were performed individually or in duet. Kouyate introduced the instrument to interplay in a much wider ensemble. His group plays with multiple singers, drummers, ngoni, and more, creating a kinetic, effervescent, ass-shaking hypnosis. Kouyate also experiments technologically, sometimes playing a seven-string ngoni. "My grandfather played with three strings, my father played with four strings, I have played with seven strings," he explains.
Aside from his virtuosic playing, Kouyate is renowned for sharing the ngoni and griot tradition with a worldwide audience. "Everyone has the right to listen to this kind of music, and I've tried to bring mine to a more international platform," he said. To enable performing for bigger audiences, Kouyate again did something ngoni players had not done. Like Dylan at Newport, he went electric.
In this flat world, it's stunning how wide the circle of influence has grown—from an African musician inheriting a musical bloodline centuries old to a couple of freaks with samplers in Brooklyn. But unlike indie rock's flavor of the month, the opportunity to see Kouyate—who has played all over the world, from Belgium to Carnegie Hall—in such an intimate venue is something you'll never forget.