Taj Mahal & Bassekou Kouyate (Live at the Southbank Centre, 13 July 2014)

The evening’s music is two thirds over when Taj Mahal intones mysteriously: “And now… you’re beneath the southern cross… where the ghosts of Mississippi meet the gods of Africa.” He glances briefly at ngoni player and rising star Bassekou Kouyate, and we’re thrown headfirst into the music.

Or perhaps the music is thrown headfirst into us. The concert is more loud and strident than it is atmospheric. Not that this is a bad thing; what the two musicians’ bands lack in subtlety, they make up for in thumping rhythmic power. Perhaps that’s the nature of live blues, African or American – it’s hard to duplicate the intimacy of studio recordings, and so going hell-for-leather may be the best option when performing in front of hundreds of people.

Taj at the Southbank Centre
Taj at the Southbank Centre

The first act of the evening is the Taj Mahal Trio. Figuratively, Taj is as titanic as the building his name conjures up. He’s a big man with a big influence, and at 72 years of age, he’s been around.

Oddly, this doesn’t really show in his set with the Trio. Famed for incorporating reggae, calypso, rock ‘n’ roll and traditional North African music into his laid-back blues, most of the seven songs he plays here are straight (if nicely choppy) blues. Four of the first five songs alone are from his excellent 1968 album The Natch’l Blues; elsewhere, we have “Slow Drag” – the only post-1972 song we’re treated to – as well as the celebrated “Fishin’ Blues” and a lively rendition of “M’Banjo”. Unsurprisingly, the banjo tracks are jubilant, transcendent.

 I sure do wish he’d played this.

How much does the limited nature of his material matter? Very little. From the minute he strides confidently onto the stage with Kester Smith (drum duties) and Bill Rich (a solid, spirited bass-player), our attention is fixed on him without him even having to look at us. An assortment of guitars and a banjo sit waiting at stage right; after a few seconds’ thought, he picks up a plugged-in acoustic, gives Smith the sign, and we’re off.

The thundering drums that open his set with “Good Morning, Ms. Brown” aren’t really what we’re used to from Taj – we’re accustomed to the primacy of guitar/banjo, with the drums simply providing a solid backbeat. But the muscular resonance of his guitar easily competes with the booming skins, and his voice is in pleasantly fine fettle after half a century in the business. Great storyteller, too – one particularly amusing anecdote, whose humour derives partly from Taj’s sly facial expressions, relates how once as a child he was sitting outside after church, when a woman came “undulating” down the street. “If I ever grow up to be a musician”, boomed Taj, voicing his childhood self, “I’m gonna make a rhythm out of the way that woman walks.” He’s ended up making not only a rhythm but a career out of it.

Much of the audience is particularly looking forward to the two acts playing together, but before the third act we’re duly treated to a set by Bassekou and his band. He’s an idiosyncratic performer, shaking and shrugging and shivering his shoulders as if disgruntled at the persistence of a Malian desert fly buzzing around his ear. His percussionist looks pretty young, and might even be in his mid-teens; when he smacks the cymbals, he does so with an impish smile. His attentiveness is matched by the more studied seriousness of a tall man who appears to be playing the kora. He too looks young, possibly early 20s, and behind his air of concentration lies a calm, steady professionalism.

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Bassekou does not seem calm. He remains fixed to his spot, but he twitches frenetically. He is playing the jeli ngoni – a traditional Mande instrument made of goat skin that covers a hollow body. It’s not dissimilar to the banjo, but Bassekou does some interesting things with it. The first track he plays is like a North Africanised “Fools’ Gold” – all shimmering lines and steady percussion, creating a pretty piquant mirage. This is the feel of many tracks; for the second track, a female vocalist (presumably Malian) makes her appearance, turning and swaying gracefully. The sweat-soaked ngoni maestro is full of surprises, connecting his instrument to a wah-wah pedal and letting rip; the vocalist, in her varied vocal tone, is increasingly reminiscent of Yoko Ono, though far less grating.

The tempos vary throughout the set; taken as a whole, the music has a natural ebb and flow, with the players always light on their feet. A couple of the tracks are fast, heady, almost hallucinatory. Close your eyes, and let your imagination do the rest.

When Taj comes on, and the two musics collide, things get even more interesting. At first, the two masters twang their instruments at each other, glancing at one another and vocalising cooperatively – or is it competitively? It’s hard to tell – they playfully poke each other musically, with Taj occasionally singing light-heartedly nonsensical words about his counterpart. There’s a lot of affinity between the two, and Bassekou clearly looks up to his elder. Their relationship is refreshing, and cooks up a sweet spectacle as well as great music.

Taj and Bassekou at an as-yet-unidentified concert. (I ran out of non-blurry photos.)
Taj and Bassekou at an as-yet-unidentified concert. (I ran out of non-blurry photos.)

“I know who my mother is,” announces Taj as they break into “Zanzibar”, their second song together. “Mama Africa.” The song is like a shuffling waltz; discernible words are ‘Niger’, ‘Burkina Faso’ and, most commonly, ‘Africa’. It’s followed up by the title track of Kulanjan, the 1999 album Taj cut with kora player Toumani Diabaté; it’s a Malian standard, the sort of ‘first song’ all Malian guitarists learn how to play. The LP is one of Barack Obama’s favourites.

But for many, including myself, the highlight is undoubtedly their stunning rendition of another track from Kulanjan“Queen Bee”. The original has Ramata Diakité punctuating Taj’s timeless verses with her glimmering waterfall of a voice; here, in absence of this, is a handful of musicians smiling, singing joyously, plucking and picking and tapping and hitting to create the aural equivalent of a particularly zesty Ragoût d’igname. This is jubilance, sheer jubilance, and a nonpareil musical experience.

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