The Malian percussionist Baye Kouyaté and I first met at a dinner where Bill Jensen and Margrit Lewzcuk were welcoming him back to Brooklyn from time in Tampa, Florida with his fiancée Annette and her two children. As I approached Baye, whom I’d never met before, he grinned and drew me towards him, asking earnestly, “How are you?” Baye radiates warmth and acceptance, his skill on the talking drum is the outward expression of his inner life, the life genetically woven into his cells by an 800-year lineage of Malian griot (an African bard, poet, and wandering musician). To see Baye Kouyaté et les Tougarake perform is to watch percussionists in the throes of joy. In years of watching bands I’ve never seen musicians so ecstatic to be playing. Baye’s mission to transmit Malian culture to American and European audiences is deeply felt. Unlike many Americans governed by logic who have learned to ignore their intuition, Baye’s dreams and goals are in perfect sync with his body language and expression. As a writer who agonizes over words and forces himself to do things for discipline’s sake, over the course of our week of dinners, shows, and drinks, I was inspired by Baye’s curious lack of force—everything seemed to come naturally, his pursuits pursued intuitively, when it felt right. The following interview took place over strong coffee in the painter Bill Jensen’s kitchen.
Aaron Lake Smith: Who are you?
Baye Kouyaté: I am Baye Kouyaté, a musician from Mali who has been living in New York since 2004. My father, and his father, and the others before them were percussionists and griot. A griot in Mali is a musician, historian, and peacemaker. When my father was 15, he left his hometown and came into the capital city of Mali [Bamako] to marry my mom. They had seven children—I was the 3rd child. My sisters and brothers died very young, from curable illnesses. In 1992 my older brother passed away when he was 19 years old. My father was sick with Parkinson’s for 17 years before he passed away in 1996. In 1997, my younger brother died and in 1998 my older sister died. In 2005 my youngest sister died. Now, there are just three children living. I’m 32 years old. I started to love drumming because my mother is a singer and my father was a drummer. Sometimes my mom used to ask me to go out and get some groceries for her. On my way to the store I would hear people playing drums and become absorbed and forget where I was walking to—when I got home I would get in trouble. I was born a griot. Griot is passed down from generation to generation. You cannot just become a griot. If your father is a griot, then you become a griot.
Rail: How far back does the griot heritage go in your family?
Kouyaté: 800 years back. In Mali you get a lot of different griot names. Many of them are noble families. My last name is Kouyaté—the Kouyaté line is special because we are the first griot and the last griot. When I was little I would sing to myself. I started to play the talking drum in 1995, when I was very young. One day I went to the market with my mom and there was a guy playing the talking drum—I went up to him and asked him if I could play. He let me have the drum. My mom watched and said, “Wow! That’s good!” and soon after that my mom and I would play together. She would sing and I would play the drum. Nobody taught me how to play, but little by little I taught myself. At the time my father was sick and my mother wasn’t making any money—so the responsibility fell on me to go out and play music to make money for my family.
Rail: Economically, it’s very difficult for people to leave Mali. How did you leave Africa?
Kouyaté: I left Africa because I was playing with a French musician named Toma Sidibe. I got to know him when he came to Mali and wanted to play with traditional Malian musicians. He came in 1997 and we recorded together in Bamako. When he went back to France he got signed to Sony Music. Toma contacted me, and Sony sent me a contract for touring and flew me to France. For several years we toured France, Europe, and then North America. I lived in Paris for five years. In those years, every month that I wasn’t touring I went back to Mali to see my family. For me, it’s very important to always go back to the source. I don’t want to be disconnected from my culture. I have so much respect for my people. They are the reason I have this opportunity to progress in my life with music.
Rail: It seems like your compassion got you your big break.
Kouyaté: Exactly. If you give, you get something back. My father always told me, “Baye, have patience—it’s the way you will find anything you want in your life.” You have to see it, you have to feel it, and you have to understand what’s happening. When I get an opportunity to help, I take it. When you live in Africa, from the tv, life seems like paradise in Europe and America. I realize that what I have in Mali is huge. I have family, freedom, and circulation. I can play music anywhere, morning or night. I love Mali, but there is no opportunity there. The opportunity to meet different musicians and play is in Europe and America. If you listen, you’ll find your way.
Rail: What do you want to do?
Kouyaté: What I want to do in my life is play music forever. I want to express the triangle between Africa, Europe and America. Four hundred years ago they took the slaves from Africa to Europe, then from Europe to America to work on plantations. I want to reverse that. I want to show people through music that we are the same thing—we all come from somewhere. Peace, love, understanding, sharing life—these are the best things in this life. It’s important for us to be here and share our culture. I love to be someone who can transmit the history of the world with my drum.
Rail: Can you describe your first couple of months in New York?
Kouyaté: I only knew a couple of words in English when I came to New York. My uncle is a big musician who had a couple of friends who lived here. When I got here I called all those people and got their voicemail. It was very difficult for me to speak but I managed to say, “My name is Baye, I play the drum…” I learned how to take the subway, to read a little bit. Every night at nine I would go to the East Village—that was the only place I knew at that time. I would go into clubs and say, “I’m Baye Kouyaté. I’m a musician from Mali and I play the drum. Can I play with you?” Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I would go into bars and try to talk to people, ask them if they spoke French. Finally I made some friends who would invite me to go play. My first month was about learning not to be scared of talking to people.
Rail: I find your persistence really admirable.
Kouyaté: I would just go up and introduce myself. It’s easy to go to the bar and talk to anybody. In the bar, some people go talk to the bartender because they have a problem. When you are inside, it’s like you live in the same house. You don’t need to be afraid and say, “I don’t want to talk to this person”.
Rail: Because of this, a lot of people know you in New York.
Kouyaté: One of the first musicians I met in New York was Claude Gomez. We would go to the clubs in Manhattan and play from 11 to 4 in the morning, drumming along with the DJ. One thing that helped me a lot was finding this French place called Zebulon. Daniel Moreno, the jazz musician, one night called me and said, “Baye—I want you to come play with me at Zebulon.” I played with Daniel, and that was really great for me. I loved Zebulon—it was easy to meet a lot of people who speak French. After the show, the owner of Zebulon came and said, “Baye, you’re really great. Do you have an African band that can come and play Zebulon?” I got four Malians together and we came in and started playing traditional Malian music. We didn’t have a name, so I suggested we name it “Baye Kouyaté et les Tougarake.” Tougarake means the people who travel all over the world working and trying to help support their families far away. Anybody who’s not living in his or her country and working in another country is Tougarake. I stopped going to the East Village and started going to Zebulon, because I live in Brooklyn. The big crowd I have now got started in Zebulon—it’s a really great place.
Rail: Your charisma and energy is infectious.
Kouyaté: In our culture we say, “If you have 10,000 people and have 10,000 dollars, choose 10,000 people.” The 10,000 dollars can be spent in one month, but those 10,000 people will be with you for the rest of your life, to be with you if anything happens. Music has no frontiers. Music has no country or borders. Any noise you make is music. When woman gives life to a child, the first scream—that’s music. The wind is music for me. Talking is an instrument for me. Anything in your life is music. But it’s not just about instruments. You need to find the inspiration to get it all together and make the melody. All is a song. But what the song is—that’s the musician’s responsibility.
Rail: You look unbelievably happy while you’re playing. What are you thinking?
Kouyaté: When I’m playing I don’t know where I am. I’m just so happy because it takes me everywhere I want to go. For me, the world is here right now. I become the world-imaginer. It doesn’t matter if there’s one person in front of me. What I want in the world, it can be. Everything you do in life is time. Time to play, time to joke, time to sing, time to work. I’m so happy when I’m playing. I want to be on stage every day.
Rail: What artists and musicians have you worked with in New York?
Kouyaté: In New York—Butch Morris, Kenny Wilson, Daniel Moreno, Myas Elisse, Cooper Moore, Luri, Lenny Stern, Marianne, Amayo, Stuart Bogie and the people at Zebulon. Last weekend I played with Vieux Farka Toure at Summer Stage. I have worked with a lot of very famous musicians involved in jazz and blues.
Rail: What are your plans for the future?
Kouyaté: I want to get a family and have children. I want to travel around the world and play music. In the future I would really love to help my country and any poor country that I can. In the foreseeable future, I’m going to help Mali, because I know it. If I become a famous musician, I would bring medicine to the people of Mali. I would go village-to-village and help people survive. Sometimes you see pregnant women and you know that the hospital is 30 or 40 miles away. You can see them suffering. I’m here in America and I see all this opportunity, I see all this medicine. In my future—I want to play music, transmit the message, and help the sick be saved.
Baye Kouyaté's new CD is called DANAMA, which means, "Who you can trust." His website is www.bayekouyaté.com. Baye Kouyaté and Marianne will be playing Joe's Pub July 15th at 9:30pm, 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan.
ContributorAaron Lake Smith