Bassekou Kouyate: 'The whole thing is a big jam session'

The Malian musician on African Express, featuring 80 musicians on a train as it makes a string of stops across the UK

Bassekou Kouyate is one of the world's most celebrated players of the ngoni, a traditional West African string instrument. Kouyate, who was born in southern Mali in 1966, featured on Ali Farka Touré's posthumous album Savane and has two albums of his own, Segu Blue (2007) and I Speak Fula (2009).

Why did you decide to take part in Africa Express in the UK?

It's very important for African music, especially for the promotion of African music. Also, it's a great opportunity for a spiritual exchange between African and western music. Plus, Damon Albarn is my friend; he likes my music, I like his music, we've played music together numerous times before and we've done lots of projects together. We've even played in my house here [in Mali]. It's a real spiritual exchange for me.

What can we expect from this Africa Express tour?

The whole thing is a big jam session between musicians from all kinds of countries – Britain, America, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali – and that's what I love. I've done Africa Express a few times before in England, in France, and the ambience is always great. It's like a big family, really.

How does playing to a European audience compare to playing in Africa?

The difference is clear, because in Europe they don't understand the words of my songs so they listen to the melody and the quality of the music, whereas in Mali they understand the words. So the audiences appreciate different things.

And are you going to be the only ngoni player at this Africa Express?

Yes, of course! The ngoni is the oldest instrument in Mali, it's been around since before the birth of Christ. It's great because you can play any kind of music with it – guitar, blues, classical, hip-hop – so I can join in with all the music that'll be playing at Africa Express.


Interview by Corinne Jones

The GuardianTramp

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