Review: Taj Mahal & Bassekou Kouyaté @ Southbank Center (London, 13th July 2014)

There is a spiritual bond between the waters of the Mississippi and that of the river Niger. It is a bond which goes upstream and back to centuries ago, until the slave trade and the African diaspora. That is an inseparable connection, which also mirrors the roots and the growth of a music genre: the blues.

The missing link between the Delta blues and the Malian one has been officially ascertained, and it is constantly stated every time two musicians from the American and the West African school come in contact. The event happened at the Royal Festival Hall is the nth litmus test of this cultural link: Taj Mahal and Bassekou Kouyaté, two of the greatest bluesmen alive, are the proof of the style’s historic continuity. The rough and sincere expressivity of Taj Mahal’s electric guitar, side by side with his husky voice, set the tone to the late matinée.

Dressing an unmistakable floral-themed shirt and a gold colour hat, accompanied by the drums played by Kester Smith and the bass of Bill Rich, the Harlem-born musician brought to life his unique old-style blues, which rattled like a train, smelt of swamp and shook like the bottom of one of his “Big Legged Mamas”. The audience, apparently tranquil and standoffish, went wild in a moment, carried away by the gripping beats and the musician’s irresistible appeal.

At the end of Taj Mahal’s short set, after a selection of some of his best known blues, it was time for the hypnotic rhythmicity of Bassekou Kouyaté’s ngoni to enchant the public. The Malian virtuoso, embraced by a traditional boubou and helped by his skilled band mates Ngoni Ba (counting on a xalam and a calabash) and the alluring voice of his wife, Ami Shacko, moved the stage thousands miles away, across the Atlantic to ideally reach the Malian Sahel. There, he freed up the mildness of his lute, impressing and enchanting the audience with delicate melodies.

When the final note slipped away, there was no doubt about the elective affinities between the two styles of blues presented. No doubts about the affinities between the two approaches to art. But, first of all, the most obvious element was the affinity between the instruments played. The ngoni and the guitar have a family connection which manifests itself as soon as they are tuned in: they fulfill themselves every time they are played together. The show, which was structured in three acts, had its necessary heyday during the last: when Taj Mahal and Bassekou Kouyaté came on stage together. Followed by their bands, the two artists showed, in a triumphal way, their traditional and meaningful artistic attitude. They affirmed how two geographically distant countries are still culturally strictly linked to each other. Through some desert-blues oriented songs, like a memorable version of “Zanzibar”, they gave a revealing key of interpretation over contemporary music: a key which comes from the deepness of the African music tradition and develops itself along the course of the Mississippi.

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