Ousseynou Kouyate sings quietly to himself, waiting for his performance to start. The venue is Keur Samba, a West African restaurant on Telegraph Avenue. Kouyate is part of tonight’s attraction, Djialy Kunda Kouyate – a Wolof (Senegalese) band recently brought in by owner Jegan Loum to play at the restaurant every Friday and Saturday night.
Sitting at a table a few feet from Kouyate, it suddenly occurs to me that not one, but two identical voices seem to resonate from his singing lips. Immediately I’m sorting through layers of sound amidst the restaurant’s din: Is Kouyate singing with the stereo? Or lip-synching? Then out of the corner of my eye, all becomes clear.
Ousseynou Kouyate is a twin.
From the back of the restaurant, Assane Kouyate had joined his brother’s song. He now makes his way up the aisle to the stage.
Though identical, the twins are distinguished by their traditional Senegalese outfits: Assane’s is a regal, pale blue; Ousseynou wears a patterned orange shirt and matching hat. They are joined by a woman with a harp-like instrument – the 21-stringed kora – and a young man with an intricately decorated djembe drum. Percussionist Nbongo Mbaye comes in as they begin playing. His tiny tama – or talking drum – powerfully thumps and rumbles under his arm.
With the kora holding a steady melody, the two drums interweave and take turns accenting the movements of the Kouyates, who twirl like mirroring kaleidoscope images. Balaphonist Karamba Diabate joins the group, reinforcing the kora’s melody while percussively pushing the tempo. The twins’ rich voices soar, interchangeably singing high and low parts, backup and lead. With flurries of dance and drum, the song climaxes and stops on the dime of a single beat.
One of the musicians yells out the Wolof exclamation “Wow-wow!” meaning, emphatically, “Yes!”
In addition to providing live music, Keur Samba greets its guests with smiles, and the smell of curry and fried plantains. African beverages include: bissap (a mild, wine-colored juice), tamarind, ginger juice, and African beer and wine. Many dishes are curries prepared with lamb, chicken, or fish. For vegetarians only a few options exist, and, in the African tradition, few uncooked vegetables. Yet the dishes are still well rounded, balancing rich sauces with fluffy rice, potatoes, and sweet combinations of cabbage, raisins, eggplant, and onions.
Since Keur Samba began hosting live shows several weeks ago, audiences have embraced the Kouyates and Djially Kunda Kouyate.
The Kouyate twins moved to the Bay Area in 1998 after touring with the National Ballet of Senegal for six years. Their last name is one of the traditional family names of the West African musicians/storytellers/historians known as griots. Though they are of the Wolof ethnic group, born and raised in Dakar, the twins trace their roots to Mali, where Balla Fasseke Kouyate, who they identify as the first griot, served the legendary King Sundiata in the 13th century Mali Empire.
Today, even in a big city like Dakar, the role of the griot is very much the same as it was 800 years ago: to “make the party happen. Without a griot, your party is going to be very quiet,” says Assane. Griots also memorize vast quantities of information, including history, family heritage, and the deeds of ancestors, and relay them in the form of stories, songs, and plays. Assane explains that if someone forgets who his/her grandparents were, it is the twins’ job to remind them.
“We make people happy in their hearts,” he says, “because we remind them very deeply of who they are.”
Djialy Kunda Kouyate performs at Fridays and Saturdays at Keur Samba, 4905 Telegraph in Oakland from 8-10 p.m.. Call 654-2730.