Friday, February 24, 2012

Remembering Bouba Sacko

Bouba Sacko, Bamako 1993
At the end of 2011, while much of the world was on holiday of some sort, one of Africa's greatest guitarists, Bouba Sacko, died in Bamako.  Bouba was a virtuoso and a pioneer.  If his name is less known than those of other African 6-string maestros, that is only because he mostly recorded behind brilliant Mande vocalists such as Ami Koita, Kandia Kouyate, and his late wife Djessira Kone.  Djessira's death a couple of years ago presaged a long decline for Bouba, who never really emerged from his grief.  His last years were difficult, but he leaves us profound memories and spectacular recordings.

I first met Bouba in 1993 on my first trip to Bamako.  I knew him from the sensational, 1992, acoustic Bajourou CD, a collaboration with Djelimady Tounkara.  I found Bouba in his Bamako compound, surrounded by gadgetry, and playing high-tech Mande guitar music (bajourou) with pedals and loops.  This was his element.  Bouba had a particular feel and arranging aesthetic, one he would use on many productions.  When I asked him to describe his sound, he had few words, but his playing said it all.

Among musicians, Bouba Sacko was one of the most respected guitarists in Mali. When he started playing guitar in the 1960s, the concept of a “griot guitarist” barely existed. The famed praise musicians of West Africa’s Mande people mostly worked with the kora (21-string harp), ngoni (spike lute) and wooden-slatted balafon. Bouba’s father Ibrahim Sacko was director of the state-sponsored Instrumental Ensemble of Mali, so the traditional repertoire and lore of Mande griot heritage surrounded him from the start. Just the same, Bouba stuck with the guitar, developing a powerful capacity to evoke traditional instruments using his axe.

Djelimady Tounkara, Bouba Sacko, 2005
In 1977, Bouba became the first guitarist to perform with along with kora, ngoni, and balafon in the chamber-music-like setting of a great griot chanteuse, Fanta Damba. While other Mande guitarists, like Djelimady Tounkara of the Super Rail Band, moved into the realm of electric dance bands, Bouba stuck with the jelimusow (female griot singers). Over the years, he has accompanied some of the greatest, including Ami Koita, Kandia Kouyate, and his wife, Djessira Kone. Most of these artists’ recordings have not found their way to the international market, perhaps because they rely so much on lyric content, and appeal most powerfully to a local audience.

I stayed in touch with Bouba, and was privileged to spend time with Djessira and him in New York and in Middletown, Connecticut, during an extended visit they made in 2003.  They were an extremely happy couple, and dynamite together on stage. They performed memorably at Wesleyan University, for an Afropop fundraiser we will never forget, and at a number of private celebrations for New York's Malian community.  At one of those events, in a hair salon on 125th st, I provided a PA system, and joined in on guitar on a number of songs.  When I met Bouba again in Mali in 2005, he excitedly told me that the gig had earned him a 4-wheel-drive SUV, as a gift from the groom's father.  The car sat in the driveway.  Sadly that amazing and happy moment was the last time I ever saw him.  But he lives on in so many memories, and in the hearts of all who love Malian music, and virtuoso guitar.  Rest in piece, old friend!

 - Banning Eyre

Dirck Westervelt, Djessira Kone, B. Eyre, Bouba Sacko, 2003
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