"I am griot," the man says in French-accented English. It is no small thing. He's part of an honored tradition, a caste of people in West Africa who throughout the ages have acted as the society's musicians, storytellers, historians and messengers.
He has a centuries-old griot (gree-oh) name to prove it: Baye Kouyaté (Bye Koo-ya-tay). He is a bandleader and world-class percussionist who specializes in the talking drum. And he is most certainly a storyteller.
It's hard to find a real griot in South Tampa. Although it's relatively common for Afrocentric American musicians to embrace the griot identity, it is not in their bloodline. As Baye says, he is "born griot."
Baye is making coffee in the home near Gandy Boulevard he shares with his girlfriend and manager Annette Saldaña and her two young sons. He wears baggy shorts and a Pink Floyd tour T-shirt over his lithe, 5-foot-10-inch frame. His skin is a deep, deep brown, like most of the people in his native Mali.
Baye has lived in the United States since 2004, but in many respects is still a Third World man. He is refreshingly free of the guile and irony that marks urban American behavior. There's not a smart-ass bone in his body. He is open and giving and — this is not said easily by an American with a penchant for irony — he radiates love.
Baye and his New York-based band will perform at the WMNF Tropical Heatwave this coming Saturday, not exactly a lucrative gig. He could certainly get away with playing his rhythmic Afro-fusion with a quartet, but Baye has paid to fly in four extra musicians for the show.
This from a man with little money. "It the first time we play in Tampa," he explains in charmingly fractured English. "We be open together, sharing together, make a happening."
There's a good chance a happening will happen. Baye's music is an intoxicating, often hypnotic, update of traditional Malian styles. The undulating grooves, which at times build to a measured ferocity, are driven by hand percussion and fortified by Western trap drums. Deep electric bass firms up the bedrock. Gentle melodies are propelled by intertwined African instruments: the kora, made of gourd and strings, which emits cascades of notes, and the balofon, played with padded mallets and sounding like a watery marimba. On certain songs, Baye sings folk lyrics in an airy voice.
It's his talking drum that adds the zest. A fixture in West Africa, the instrument, which comes in several sizes, has a wooden, hourglass body, goat-skin heads on each end and dozens of strings that stretch the length of the drum on the outside. The player positions it in the armpit and strikes the head with a curved stick and fingers. By squeezing the strings with his or her arm, a player can change the drum's pitch, giving it a swooping sound, making it talk. In the hands of a master like Baye, the talking drum produces a cauldron of polyrhythms laced with crude melodies. The sound is primal, elemental, exciting.
He has many admirers throughout the world, including his kora player, Yacouba Sissoko, a fellow Malian who's one of the more established musicians on the New York world-music scene. "In my country, we have many good talking drum playah," Sissoko says. "But among the younger generation he's a famous one. He plays the talking drum a little different from anyone in my country. He's created a new style that nobody can do."
Baye just finished his first CD, Danama, which was recorded in New York and financed by Annette. Leni Stern, a jazz and world guitarist of international repute, performs tasteful parts on several songs. She'll join him on stage at Heatwave. "I totally fell in love with playing with Baye," she says. "I'm part of the family. I think of him as my little cousin."
Despite his palpable humility, Baye has ambition. He wants the world to hear his music, and he knows that capturing the Western ear is essential. "I'm thinking about what I can do to get American people to get inside the music," Baye says. "It's Africa to America to Europe. It's a triangle of music."
A triangle whose longest line is African.
You may be wondering, as I did, how an authentic Malian griot ended up in Tampa Bay. It's a wonderful, and yet in many respects, typical saga, which Baye is happy to offer in great detail. Ask him how old he is and Baye answers, "Thirty-two. I was born in Bamako [Mali's capital], August 14, 1975."
Baye intersperses his personal biography with historical and cultural insights on his homeland. Mali, a former French colony and a democracy since 1992, is a large inland country, nearly twice the size of Texas. Most of the land lies in the Sahara, which makes it usually hot, dry and dusty. Although not born into privilege, Baye is exceptionally fortunate by Malian standards. The country's life expectancy is 49.5, its literacy rate 46 percent. He is the third of seven siblings, four of whom — two older and two younger — have already died from various maladies.