- Dji Tafinha from Independente
Bassekou Kouyate is a griot, meaning that he’s part of an ancient, hereditary caste responsible for maintaining a body of songs and stories that have been passed down for generations. In precolonial Mali, his job description would have fallen somewhere between court musician and oral historian; even in today’s multiparty democracy, the griots have an important role to play in maintaining their culture’s social mores and artistic heritage.
But Kouyate’s not just any griot. As he explains in French, through translator Maya Barsacq, he’s got certain family responsibilities to maintain.
“His family is really the griot family,” Barsacq says, checking in from Kouyate’s room in a Bay Area hotel. “So it’s not like he really had a choice about becoming a musician. And he’s passed it on; he has children, and they also play.”
The singer and ngoni virtuoso’s claim is easy to validate: a quick scan of my own less-than-complete record collection turns up more than a dozen albums by various members of his clan.
With support from the country’s politicians and entrepreneurs, who love to have their own family histories immortalized in song, being a griot is one of Mali’s more lucrative professions. Kouyate could easily have settled for being a busy and accomplished exponent of the traditional arts. Unlike some of his cousins, however, he’s been an innovator ever since he began his professional life as a teenager in the country’s capital, Bamako.