Sahara Soul – Joy from Mali

sah008Last Saturday’s Sahara Soul concert at London’s Barbican featured three very different bands from Mali, a giant of African countries for its musical output.

When I booked the tickets a few weeks ago though I had no idea how topical the show would turn out to be. For although Mali has been in serious turmoil for over a year, it is only with the French military operation launched there last month that the situation has hit the UK headlines. Indeed so topical is Mali it seems, this concert received far more mainstream reviews than is usual.

Mali was considered an African success story due to 20 years of economic growth, a flourishing democracy and relative social stability. But in 2012 all that changed. Al Qaeda practically formed a separate state in the desert north while the democratically elected president was ousted in a coup.

So when Saturday night’s show was introduced with the news that French troops had just captured the northern city of Gao to audience cheers, it was clear that tonight was about more than music. Though never has the cliché about the unifying power of music seemed more relevant.

The three bands performing represented three different Malian ethnicities and three very different musical styles. They also hold different political visions for Mali, though tonight the message was all about getting peace first.

Sidi Toure

First up was Sidi Toure, who actually comes from Gao where the radical islamist regime has in the last year effectively outlawed music, and forced musicians like Toure into exile.

A member of the Muslim Songhai people (the vast majority of Malians are Muslim), dressed in robes and a kufi hat, he played folky “songhai blues” – on a swirling rhythmic acoustic guitar.  

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of Sidi Toure’s relatively mellow set was his incredible percussionist. Leaping about at the back of the stage, encouraging the audience to clap along, while his wrists were a blur of rhythm on the single cylinder type drum that he somehow got bass and hi-hat like sounds from at the same time with just his hands and small sticks.  

Next up were the completely different Tamikrest (though the same cylinder drum thing was in use). Tamikrest are a younger and rockier version of Tinarwien. And like them are Touareg people – nomads from across the Sahara.

It was in fact a rebellion by Touareg militias in the north of Mali last year, part of a prolonged separatist campaign, which led to the establishment by Islamic extremists (who some say hijacked the Touareg cause) of a separate state.

Tamikrest rock. Seriously. Their leader, Ousmane AG Mossa, looks like a young laid back Jimi Hendrix dressed in desert robes with hair looking like it had been electrified by his Les Paul guitar.

Perhaps it is the difference in his political opinions that contributed to his ‘too cool for school look’, or maybe he just is too cool for school. During the ensemble finale he seemed to keep to the sidelines.

It was down to the side of the stage that a handful of women from the almost all white Barbican crowd leapt to one by one to let loose and dance to Tamikrest’s ripping set of desert blues. This was played with looping melodic dusty sounding electric guitars, supported by furious percussion and astonishing undulating bass.

Saharan Touareg band Tamikrest performs at Sahara Soul, a music festival at the Barbican Hall in London

Tamikrest are not nearly as subtle or intricate as the more famous Tinariwen. And Ousmane’s vocals were almost too laid back to be audible. But this was off set by the whooping backing vocals of female bandmate Wonou Waldet Sidati and the generally great music that is the saharan blues meeting western rock music – and that bass player was just amazing!

All the songs tonight were sung in French, or the languages of Mali. The between song chat was also in French, each artist apologising for their bad English. This meant I didn’t understand a lot of what was being said. What was clear though was that everyone was happy about the French helping Mali oust the Islamic radicals from the north.

You didn’t need to speak French though to understand final act Bassekou Kouyate’s list of liberties that have been stripped from society by the extremists. “No music, no TV, no telephones, no democracy. This is no good,” he said. Adding that Sharia law “is very bad”.

Sahara Soul
Aminata Sacko and Bassekou Kouyate

In his headline act Bassekou Kouyate, a big bear like man from southern Mali, commanded the stage while leading his six person band called Ngoni Ba which included his son Moustafa and his wife Aminata Sacko.

The whole band were dressed in purple robes and Kouyate himself looked like an African king, albeit one who played the very basic looking lute like instrument called the ngoni with one leg on the monitors at the front of the stage, rock style!

The ngoni is quite an incredible instrument. It seems to come in different varieties with Kouyate playing lead guitar like solos on a small variant while other members of the band played rhythm like larger versions of the instrument.

Kouyate’s music is totally different to the two preceding band, sounding more like southern African music. It sounded happy too. And indeed Kouyate and his band were a cheery bunch who despite the between song talk of sharia law and war couldn’t help but infuse the Barbican with a feeling of warmth.

wp-bassekou-kouyate-5432In fact it is quite amazing how the Barbican crowd managed to resist the jubilant energy of the band who danced on the stage in mini spontaneous synchronised routines or when the percussionist leapt to the forefront playing crazy shell like instruments or a mini drum held on his shoulders which made all kinds of sounds. 

Kouyate finished his set to a standing ovation and then the grande finale saw all 17 musicians that had played tonight back on stage for a messy but joyful encore. 

The crowd needed some encouragement, but resistance to dancing was now futile. In the end, war seemed very far away from this concert hall, where it seemed, it was all about the music after all.

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