One of the world’s most accomplished guitarists stood on stage in Nairobi on Tuesday night this week, gently caressing the strings of his instrument at the start of a concert that was a celebration of the music cultures of East and West Africa.
Habib Koite, the globally renowned maestro from Mali, played an introductory piece before welcoming the other members of the star-studded trio, Ivorian-born Malian balafon virtuoso Aly Keita and Ugandan folk musician Joel Sebunjo who together played an instrumental piece with a cheeky interplay of solos between the musicians.
The maiden concert in the project dubbed Ganda Mandingo had taken place before a full house in Kampala last week, before the second show at Alliance Francaise, Nairobi. It was the brainchild of Ugandan folk musician Sebunjo but was cancelled even before the tour could start three years ago due to the Covid pandemic.
“We are all instrumentalists so we can quickly understand the scale that each one is playing,” says Habib who has toured the world for more than three decades, and recorded with top musicians like Bonnie Raitt, Eric Bibb, and Jackson Browne.
Two members of Habib’s group, Barmada, playing keyboards and percussions, join the group on stage to form a five-piece band and the packed audience get on their feet to the upbeat L.A and sing along to the infectious chorus of Forever.
The repertoire features two songs by Joel Sebunjo notably Empale ya kadde from his 2016 album I speak Luganda and two instrumental pieces from Keita, Marie that he composed for his daughter, and Farafinko (The Hope of Africa), the title track of his 2010 album. He lights up the crowd when the songs reach a frenetic climax as he switches between his mallets to showcase the range of sounds from his balafon.
“The concert set is good for the audience because it is not boom boom all the time, neither is it slow throughout. The songs are of different tempos,” says Habib.
“This is a dialogue between the Mandingo culture of the West African griots and the culture of the Baganda people because music plays a central role in these two traditions,” says Sebunjo.
Sebunjo, a graduate of musicology from Makerere University, has been a frequent visitor to West Africa since 2006 where he studied the kora and incorporated the 21-stringed harp into his music. He used to sing a lot of Mandingo songs during his concerts while playing the kora which led music fans in Kampala to baptise him the Ugandan Griot.
That love for the kora inspired Sebunjo to take up the endongo, an 8-stringed instrument of the Baganda, that was traditionally played in the courtyard of the Kabaka. While the calabash covered in cow skin acts as the resonator in the kora, the endongo’s sound box is created from a bowl covered in the skin of a monitor lizard.
Another common denominator between West African music and the traditional music of the Baganda is the use of the pentatonic scale. “Our music runs on the five notes which is what we use to build the body that accompanies the voice which then elevates the music,” explains Sebunjo.
“Aly and Habib are the leading lights of African classical music so having the time to work with them uplifts the East African World Music scene because they can expose us more to the big markets,” says Sebunjo.
Aly Keita the Malian maestro of the balafon who was on his second visit to Kenya, first met Sebunjo at the Bayimba Festival in Uganda in 2015 when the idea for such a collaborative project was first discussed.
He learnt the ‘African piano’ from watching his father play the instrument but is the pioneer of the chromatic balafon, an innovative approach to tuning the instrument modelled on a piano.
“The new generation of balafon players from West Africa all want to play like Aly Keita and I am happy for them because they have possibilities to learn even more than me, thanks to technology,” he said.
“Balafon is me, because when you know your instrument, you know all the tunes 100 percent and then you play, that is the most beautiful thing you can have,” he says.
Keita was this year awarded the Deutscher Jazz Prize (German Jazz Award) for his outstanding artistic expression of the balafon. “I was surprised, but this is a win for Africa, not for me an individual.”
He adds, “I want to play this instrument until my very last minute on earth. One day I will not be here anymore but my name will live on because of the balafon.”
Meanwhile Sebunjo is optimistic that the success of the first two concerts can create the momentum for the trio to take the show around Africa so that audiences around the continent can also appreciate the music.