Interview: Aymeric Krol – BKO Quintet (November 2016)

“How can such small instruments possibly play so loud?” That’s what a member of the audience asked to BKO Quintet after their Huddersfield gig a few days ago. However, when the ‘small’ instruments are an amplified djeli n’goni and a donso n’goni, played by the educated fingertips of Abdoulaye Koné and Adama Coulibaly, the answer is straightforward because “that’s inevitable”.

In fact, BKO represents a new perspective over Malian tradition and its music instruments. Since 2012, the quintet from Bamako has brought some noise and rock attitude to West African music. They play loud, electrified, and were the first and still are the only band to dare to mix the music of two centuries-old castes: griot (storytellers and musicians) and donso (hunters).

The band is currently touring Europe, so we reached Aymeric Krol, founder member of BKO and percussionist of the band together with Ibrahim Sarr, during the UK leg of the tour, and investigate about the uniqueness of his project.

I come from France, I’m French, but it’s almost 15 years since I’ve lived between Mali and France. I met Ibrahim 15 years ago, when I’d been for my first time in Mali. He’s a really great master in percussions. Actually he is one of the most popular djembe players in Bamako. He already toured for five or six years with Oumou Sangaré, who is Mali’s great diva. Then, four years ago we decided to form this band called BKO.

The initial idea was to bring together two traditional Malian string instruments deriving from two distant universes: the donso ngoni (played by Adama Koulibaly) and the djeli n’goni. The first one is a pentatonic lute, traditionally played by hunters, while the djeli n’goni, which is the same instrument played by Bassekou Kouyaté and is quite popular outside Africa, too, is from the griot tradition. So, it is the first time that someone decided to bring together these instruments. In addition, another peculiarity of this project is that we are an electrified project. Of course we use acoustic instruments, but we amplify them. We are almost like a rock ’n ’roll band playing traditional instruments.”

We asked Aymeric about the unconventional and intriguing idea to have two types of n’goni and two traditions playing together.

“Hunters and griot are two very different castes in Mali. Also, the tunes they play are distinct. For example, griots sing about the name of their family, while hunters are not involved in this kind of thing. Then, there’s also the fact that hunters are usually Animists, so they can eat pork, for example; while many griots are Muslims. Anyway, before this project, I’ve never seen those two n’goni playing together. Actually, in Malian tradition, they don’t need to play together. As a matter of fact, traditional music has a well-defined function within the Malian society, so they never put those two strings side-by-side.

We also wanted to know how the idea developed.

The musicians [Adama and Abdoulaye] were looking forward to this kind of collaboration. They just needed someone up for organising the project and to make arrangements for that. So I did all the arrangements to let them play together. It constantly was a work in progress, because we didn’t know how all this could sound and never listened to anything similar. We started to work together in Bamako, trying things out and doing rehearsals all together for one week. We needed to modify the sound of the donso n’goni a bit, because it is tuned too high. So we had to adapt its sound to the one of the djeli n’goni, which is considerably lower. After some modifications and adjustments, we finally sorted out our sound.”

Bamako is a constant with the project. Not only is the band named after the Malian capital, but as Aymeric revealed, BKO could only take shape there.

BKO means Bamako. I’ll also cut the quintet from the name from our next album because we want to make it clearer. We called ourselves in this way because we want to share the Malian sound with the world. Mali is at the basis of blues, and Bamako is a city at the crossroad between seven countries. So there are people coming from all the nearby countries and bringing their traditions to Bamako. They bring their culture, stories, music, so we wanted to show this unicity and to open a window on Malian culture. We don’t want to make music only for entertainment, but we also want to show the richness of the Malian music scene.”

After a few terrible years, Mali is slowly recovering. Despite that the situation in the north of the country is still critical, the South looks forward to going back to normality, getting back its freedom and peace. We asked Aymeric about his feeling about the current situation of the West African country.

When we decided to start the band, Mali was in a state of emergency. Weddings and traditional parties were forbidden, so we did a lot of rehearsals because I also planned a tour in Europe at that time. Then, we left Mali and what was going on there for a while in 2013. Today, the situation is strange. There’s no place for terrorists in Bamako, but there’re still some problems. You can feel that the situation is not 100 percent safe. However, Bamako and the south are safer than the north, and for musicians it’s no more problematic like before. I remember that in 2012, we weren’t even allowed to play our music.”

As much as BKO music is well-rooted in Malian tradition, the musicians are also adapting it to appeal to a global audience. Their approach to the West African music is, as Aymeric told us, “traditional and innovative at the same time”. If the quintet perform all over the world, the reason has to be sought in their sound, which constantly attracts a new audience.

When we play outside Mali, people hardly understand the lyrics we sing, but they get the feeling of them through our sound. For example, I really liked our UK tour, because people understood our music and message. As I said before, we’re a kind of rock ’n’ roll band in the end: we use saturation and distortions. Then, the djeli n’goni and donso n’goni have something noisy in their nature. I tell you something happened yesterday, after we performed here in Huddersfield. There was a guy who saw the strings and came to us saying: ‘how was it possible to play so loud with so small guitars?’.”

Their 2014 debut album, titled Bamako Today and released by Buda Music, put BKO’s name on the African music scene map; a world tour and some illustrious collaborations did the rest, and today BKO are one of the most up-and-coming acts coming from Mali. So we close our interview with Aymeric investigating on the future plans of the band

We have already recorded our second album. We did it between our tours and we’re going to release it next year, but we still need to find a label. I can say that it is more rock than the first one. First, because we’ve added the drum, while the first album was more about percussions. Then, we have also recorded it live, so the sound will be really intense. Finally, we have properly developed the sound of our band. So yes, I definitely think that our next album will be better than the first, because when we released the Bamako Today, BKO was still a young band.

“Then we’re also touring. We have some gigs in Germany, then Switzerland and we will close our winter tour in France. But we’re planning to come back to Europe in April next year, and then to play in the US. I’ve also some options in South Africa… But we also hope to come back to Europe for some festivals.”

If 2016 let you discover BKO Quintet, 2017 will allow you to listen to and learn more about their music and intriguing project to connect two far-apart traditions.

photo ©: Guillaume Dussably