No one has ever mistaken the Berkeley flats for any part of Mali, the landlocked West African nation that stretches from tropical savanna in the south to the vast northern district in the Sahara. But that hasn’t stopped Wassoulou-reared Mamadou Sidibe from trying to turn the Karl Linn Community Garden on Hopkins Street into a little patch of home by growing gourds, an essential component of the instrument that’s taken him to theaters and festivals around the world.
A master of the n’goni, a traditional hunter’s harp that he transformed into a mainstay of Malian popular music back in the 1980s, Sidibe sounded more than satisfied that his efforts had recently, well, born fruit. He’s been at it for years, “but there isn’t enough sun here for a good gourd,” he explained. “This year I tried something and got three very good ones for the first time! Everyone in the garden says ‘Wow! Mama, you work very hard.’ Last year I got one and then someone stole it.”
He taught himself to build the traditional six-string instrument while growing up, a trial and error process that required continual tweaks as he gradually doubled the number of strings. Drying and preparing a bushel gourd is a painstaking process that takes months, and the n’gonis that Sidibe sells are prized by musicians.
But gourds aren’t the only thing that Sidibe has been cultivating in Berkeley. Since moving here in 2004 with his American-born wife, Latin music percussionist Vanessa Sidibe, he’s steadily connected with musicians eager to explore the rhythms and forms he grew up with in Mali’s Wassoulou region. Sidibe introduces a new collaboration Thursday at the Back Room with Berkeley multi-instrumentalist Eliyahu Sills on oud, flutes and bass, and Berkeley Festival of Choro co-founder Brian Rice on Brazilian and West African percussion.
Mamadou Sidibe & Eliyahu Sills with Brian Rice, Back Room, Berkeley, Thursday, March 16, $25
It’s a project that he and Sills have been talking about for years, ever since Sills saw him perform with the Fula Brothers, Sidibe’s West Africa-meets-Americana project with guitarist Walter Strauss. They finally found the right time to pursue a collaboration and at the first rehearsal last month Sidibe was delighted to discover that Sills had recruited Rice, a percussionist he’d had his eye on for years. Still in the process of discovery, the new group features some pieces by Sills and lots of music by Sidibe. “I brought all my songs,” he said.
Sidibe also has several Fula Brothers gigs coming up with Strauss, including Friday at Walnut Creek’s Devil Mountain Coffeehouse, April 29 at Petaluma’s Polly Klaas Theatre for a fundraiser supporting the Sonder Project’s work providing clean drinking water in Burkina Faso and Malawi, and back in Berkeley June 10 for a show at the Back Room.
Strauss was playing with another eminent Malian musician, kora master Mamadou Diabaté, when he first met Sidibe, who sat in with the band at Ashkenaz. Long based in West Sonoma, Strauss has found fascinating currents where American folk and blues idioms flow into West African styles. In order not to get lost on their extended improvisational flights Strauss has honed uncommon rhythmic flexibility.
“Mamadou is one of the most sophisticated rhythmic player I’ve ever worked with,” Strauss said. “He’s got such a capacity for, say, feeling three and four beats to the measure at the same time. It’s an intuitive thing we have to work out. I can watch his foot and he’s feeling it in three beats. I’ll start feeling it that way, and a little while later his foot is moving in four. I’ll ask him, ‘Is it this?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘But I thought it was this.’ ‘Yes.’ It’s both, a whole gestalt.”
The instrument that Sidibe plays, a 14-string kamele n’goni, is one that he pioneered. The traditional six-string donso n’goni is used for hunter rituals and ceremonies in the Wassoulou region where Mali, Ivory Coast, and Guinea converge. Sibide faced a good deal of resistance when he started adding strings and playing the instrument with the women who brought the incantatory Wassoulou sound to the world, particularly Coumba Sidibe (no direct relation) and Oumou Sangaré.
“I made it look very different and we did have a lot of fights,” he said. “People don’t want to change. But I thought, what if I put two more strings, and two more? When I play that it’s very different. People started calling it kamele n’goni, ‘kamale’ means young people, and I wanted to change it for popular music.”
Sidibe’s musical ambition came to fruition and he reshaped Malian music, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that he had the opportunity to record with Oumou Sangaré, his Bamako compatriot who brought the n’goni new international visibility. He’d accompanied her at the very start of her career, and they gained national attention together in the mid-‘80s with a series of appearances on Malian television. But he was back in the Wassoulou region when she made her first album in Bamako with renowned arranger and producer Amadou Ba Guindo, 1990’s Moussolou, a project that used a different n’goni player.
Sidibe went back to working with the great Coumba Sidibe and Sangaré went on to become an international force, recording a series of hit albums for World Circuit Records (released in the US by Nonesuch), while embracing her role as an entrepreneur, activist and advocate for women’s rights in Africa. Over the years she and Sibide stayed in close touch, and when she found herself in the U.S. in March 2020, she seized the opportunity to collaborate.
Locked down far from home for an indeterminant period, she bought a house in Baltimore and “she called me and said, ‘Come here, we can do some work together,’” he recalled. “She bought my ticket and I spent six weeks there. We’d work all night, because in the daytime it was too noisy. We work, work, work and at 6 a.m. see light outside and go to bed.”
Their diligence resulted in 10 of the 11 songs on her gorgeous 2022 album Timbuktu, a project that drew on Sidibe’s deep familiarity with the n’goni’s string kin, like the Dobro and slide guitar. And when Sangaré performed at Freight & Salvage last October, she hailed Sidibe from the stage, inviting him up to perform with her band. Whether he’s sowing in an Ohlone Greenway garden or a house in Baltimore, the seeds planted by Sidibe yield some remarkable fruits.