Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, January 16


Sydney, January 16, 2018: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba perform at the 2018 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)
Bassekou Kouyate and amy Sacko. Photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

It flares up like a sudden tongue of flame as when a fire catches in the dark. Were it light rather than sound you’d shield your eyes from its glare, and if suffering is the human condition, Amy Sacko’s singing is the soundtrack. Hers is a voice of spearing urgency, improbable range and a power that jolts like electric shocks. I’ve heard scores of stupendous singers in the flesh across the decades, from Sutherland to Mariza, and Sacko takes her place in such exalted company.

This is the first time that she, her husband, Bassekou Kouyate, and his band Ngoni Ba have been to Australia, and the albums didn’t lie about these Malians’ joyous grooves and melodic potency. As Toumani Diabate is benchmark on the kora (the region’s other great melodic string-instrument), Kouyate is on the four-string ngoni (a forerunner of the lute).

Amplified and treated with various pedal effects, Koyate’s ngoni could sound like an electric guitar playing psychedelic rock, while retaining a unique lilting quality that probably is partly due to gut strings being played with the fingers, and partly to the instrument’s broader dynamic range in its acoustic guise. Even the pretty standard blues licks he deployed on Poye (which was a close cousin of a 12/8 slow blues) sounded stunningly fresh in his hands and on this wondrous little device.

Poye was also exemplified how Mamadou Kouyate (bass ngoni), Moctar Kouyate (calabash) and Mahamadou Tounkara (yabara – shaker) could twist a groove into something all their own, while on two other pieces Toukara swapped to tama (talking drum) for exhilarating solos.

About an hour into a 75-minute show, they turned to Wagadou, the melody of which may be over 1000 years old. Its much slower pulse allowed for infinite rhythmic nuance, and for Sacko’s voice to blaze up to its ultimate potential: a sound to stop you breathing as she stretched wailing notes to breaking point, only to end them with such abruptness it was as though they’d been sliced with a knife.