Moh Kouyaté’s chic, white-walled apartment in Paris’ 10th arrondissement contains a treasure trove of West African instruments brought from his home in Guinea. Among the 39-year- old singer and guitarist’s prized possessions are a ngoni, a centuries-old forerunner of the banjo; and a kora, a type of 21-string harp. He cracks a wide smile as he shows me his beautifully crafted toys. “I might live here now,” he says, “but I keep my traditions.”
There are also, of course, a couple of guitars and an iMac. The key to Kouyaté’s music is that – like his home – it effortlessly combines rich musical history with the very modern. His debut album Loundo, which was released this February, blends blues, Afrobeat, funk and jazz with the Mandingo tradition that has been passed down in his family from generation to generation. “I love to make people dance, and then in the next moment to take my acoustic guitar and give them something spiritual,” he says.
The most impressive instrument Kouyaté shows me is a full-size balafon: a long wooden xylophone made from bamboo and dried calabash gourds. It’s an instrument that’s been around since at least 1352, and learning to play it was Kouyaté’s inheritance. “My father’s father was a very good player,” he explains, “And my father too.”
As he says this we’re being watched over by a black and white photograph of the man in question, Bambo Kouyaté, playing guitar on the streets of the Guinean capital Conakry. The Kouyatés are from a long line of travelling musicians and story-tellers known as griots, although they prefer a different term.
“I like the word ‘djéli’,” Kouyaté explains. “Griots is a colonial word. ‘Djéli’ means ‘blood’. You have to be born djéli, you can’t become djéli. We’re keepers of a tradition which goes a long way back. My father taught me our history and our stories, and I have a responsibility to pass them on to my son and my brothers. I have many sisters and brothers who sing and play guitar, and because I’m the oldest I was their teacher. I taught them guitar and balafon to keep that tradition going.”
Kouyaté has been playing guitar since he was big enough to hold one. Born in Conakry, by 16 he had formed his first band in order to play sabar parties – the idea of which is the same as teenage parties all over the world: making music that girls want to dance to.
It was a local guitar hero named Amadou Sadio Diallo who recognised Kouyaté’s burgeoning talent and persuaded him to turn his attention to more highbrow pursuits. “He said: ‘Hey, small brother, come here. You play very well, but try to learn more. Come to my home, I’ll show you something.’ I was very happy about that, so I took my guitar to his home.”
What Diallo wanted to show him was George Benson’s 1989 record Tenderly. At first, Kouyaté wasn’t sure what to make of it. “I said to him: ‘This music is difficult, I can’t understand anything’,” he remembers. “He said: ‘This is jazz! George Benson is a master guitar player!’ I kept trying to understand, and in one or two months I became a fan. I learned just by listening to him and playing.”
Hearing Benson sent Kouyaté on a journey of musical discovery through the greats of blues and rock from BB King to Jimi Hendrix. It’s a journey he’s still on today. “That’s my history,” says Kouyaté. “I try to take things from modern guitar players and put it into my traditional guitar.”
After making a name for himself playing in the bars and hotels of Conakry, Kouyaté was invited by the Guinean singer Doura Barry to join him on a tour of Europe in 2003. It was on tour with Barry that his talent impressed the American bluesman Corey Harris, and soon Kouyaté found himself being invited to join further tours of America and Europe.
He met and married a Frenchwoman, and together they decided to settle in Paris in 2007. Living in France has finally given Kouyaté the chance to record his own album, and to play with a host of talented musicians. On Loundo, his collaborations include ‘Darré’, a sublime duet with the Sierra Leonean singer Mariama, and the beautiful ‘Gassata’ with Ango-Italian singer Piers Faccini.
However, Kouyaté’s home will always be Guinea. “I go back every year,” he says with a grin. “I’m from a big family so I have many small brothers who are waiting for me. I go back every year. I have to be in Conakry because it’s the place where I get my inspiration. I start everything there.”
As we sit at his kitchen table sipping espressos, he turns and indicates the grey skies that we can see gathering over the city. “When I’m here in Paris it’s good, but I miss the sunshine,” he laughs. “I’m a sunshine boy!”
His family’s djéli heritage is still present in the topics he chooses to write and sing about. “In Mandingo society, the djéli is there to say if something is good or not,” he explains. “They give inspiration and direction to people so they know what is good and what is not.”
For that reason, Kouyaté’s songs are more than romantic ballads. “I do write about love, but I also write about society and the problems we face,” he says. “In Guinea, we have many problems that come from political instability. Sometimes you can hear about that in my songs, and also about racism. We can find racism everywhere – even in Africa. I write about how people must stay together. We all have the same blood.”
When he returns to Guinea, he sees a country that has been changing, slowly, for the better since Alpha Condé became the country’s first freely elected president in 2010. Last year, Condé was re-elected for a second term with almost 58% of the vote.
“We’ve had problems with instability, but people from Guinea want now just to be happy and live good lives,” says Kouyaté. “We’re a little bit happier because the new President is trying to do something good. At least now with democracy we have the opportunity to say: ‘This has been good, this has not been good, try to do more.’ The people are very tired. They just want the opportunity to progress.”
For Kouyaté himself, progress means taking Guinea’s music to as many listeners as possible. As well as his own album and tours, he’s currently working to establish a cultural association which would give young Guinean musicians the benefit of his experiences and help them to record and tour around the world. “I’m not just a guitar player,” he says.
“I’m a brother too. When I go back to the village, they have another vision of me and I have to live up to that responsibility!”
Spoken like a true djéli. You can take the musician out of Guinea, but Moh Kouyaté is set on taking Guinea’s music to the world.