Mamady Kouyaté was born to musical royalty. The Manding (or Mande) ruled West Africa in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the Kouyaté family served as the kings’ traditional griots (virtuoso musicians and praise historians). Guinea’s Kouyatés are famously linked to the wooden-slotted balafon, but by the time Mamady was born in 1956, guitarists were transposing balafon riffs onto guitar.
Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, Kouyaté worked the scene, leading a regional band for ten years, and subbing for guitarists in national bands. In the late ’90s, he helped resurrect the legendary Bembeya Jazz, and played next to guitar hero Sekou Bembeya Diabaté on the group’s 2003 comeback album Bembeya, and two world tours. Back in Conakry, he labored to revive classic bands using young players, but the callousness of Guinea’s politicians angered him.
“Musicians had put in 40-year careers for their country,” says Kouyaté, “and they couldn’t even feed themselves. I said this publicly, and I went to prison four times. They said I was trying to sabotage the government.”
In March 2004, Kouyaté fled a fifth arrest and came to New York. He located a young relative, Mohammed Kouyaté—who is also a talented guitarist—and formed the Mandingo Ambassadors. The duo located veteran Guinean singer Émile Benny Soumah—former star of the national band Balla et ses Balladins—who despaired of finding musicians to accompany him, and had lived in obscurity in the New York area without performing for ten years.
“When we rehearsed for the first time,” says Kouyaté, “Émile spent the whole night crying.”
It’s not hard to see why. The group is spot-on with percussion, balafon, bass, drums, two vocalists, and two guitars. Kouyaté’s sound is pointed and fierce when soloing at spit-fire velocity, and smooth and sweet when accompanying. In addition, his picking technique—learned from guitarists back home who were hesitant to use effects because they might break and become impossible to replace—produces varied and evocative tones.
“If you want to blend, you play in the middle of the strings,” he says. “If you want to create a slightly different feeling, you move a little up toward the neck. If you want to go crazy, and make the sound that really hits, you move all the way to the bridge.”
And when Kouyaté “goes crazy,” the glorious sound and spirit of 1960s Guinea lives again.