There was dancing at the Sanctuary for Independent Media on Wednesday night. Lots of it. All around the edges of the seats, the standing-room-only audience members were dancing. On the stage, the band was dancing. Heck, even I was dancing.
Some audience members danced up the center aisle to lay money at the feet of the musicians. One woman danced up the aisle and placed a dollar bill on the sweaty forehead of the bandleader, as is the Malian tradition. Later, she danced up the aisle to place jewelry on the hands of the lead vocalist.
Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate is a master of the ngoni, a small stringed instrument that’s something of a cross between a lute, a mandolin and a banjo. He played on Bela Fleck’s marvelous “Throw Down Your Heart” album and the film of the same name. Tonight, he’s performing at Carnegie Hall.
But on Wednesday, he brought his band and their joyous sound to Troy in support of his new album, “I Speak Fula,” and it was heavenly. In addition to Kouyate, the band featured his wife Amy Sacko on vocals, two percussionists and three other musicians playing ngonis of varying sizes.
The lyrics were in a foreign language, but there was nothing foreign about the almighty groove that the band laid down. With microphone pick-ups attached to their instruments with electrical tape, the band simply rocked the house.
One song sounded like a second cousin to Appalachian mountain bluegrass. Still another was spiced with Spanish flamenco and Middle Eastern motifs. But mostly, the 100-minute performance was steeped in the blues. African blues, to be sure, but also obviously related to the blues of Taj Mahal, B.B. King and even Jimi Hendrix. And when Kouyate leaned in to use his wah-wah footpedal, it was easy to draw a direct line from his Malian blues to the Grateful Dead.
Kouyate apologized several times during the show, saying, “My English is very, very bad,” but the music transcended the need for translation. “OK, you happy?,” he asked toward the end of the concert. Oh yes, indeed, we were.
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk. You can see more of Andrzej’s photos from this show at the Nippertown photo archive.