Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba

“To all the rock ‘n’ rollers of the USA, I’m coming in February, 2010!”

That’s Malian maestro Bassekou Kouyate with a heads-up well worth heeding. A virtuoso picker and musical visionary whose work blurs the lines between West African and American roots music, Bassekou has jammed with Bonnie Raitt and Bono, won praise from Eric Clapton. He’s also dug into blues and country music with Taj Mahal and created freewheeling improvisations with banjo maverick Bela Fleck. Bassekou’s instrument, the ngoni, is a “spike lute” and an ancestor of the banjo, sharing its taut-skinned drum body, percussive attack, and varied picking techniques. Since 2005, Bassekou has led Ngoni Ba, the first-ever group built around not one but four ngonis—all played by members of his family. The group’s second CD I Speak Fula comes out on Sub Pop imprint Next Ambiance in February of 2010 (preceded by a digital release via iTunes in December ‘09) on the occasion of Bassekou’s first U.S. tour as a headliner. Bela Fleck will join the group on stage for a number of shows, guaranteeing a storm of string-picking ecstasy.

Bassekou was born in 1966 in Garana, a village on the banks of the Niger River at the heart of the old Bamana Empire (1712-1861). He descends from a long line of griots, traditional historians and praise musicians. His father Moustapha Kouyate played the ngoniba, or “large lute,” and his mother Yakare Damba is a singer. Moustapha never allowed himself to be recorded, despite many attempts by Radio Mali. Young Bassekou at first seemed more interested in football than music, so his father was surprised to discover that the boy was a natural player who could master repertoire almost effortlessly. A rebel from the start, Bassekou was placed under the control of a religious cleric, a marabout, who made him shine shoes in front of Bamako’s ritzy Amitie Hotel. Bassekou returned to his village, and music, at age 16. When his father was too ill to travel, he chose Bassekou to play ngoni in his place when Yakare toured.

After Moustapha died, Bassekou moved to the regional capital, Segu, and began accompanying talented singers, including one on her own path to stardom, Nainy Diabaté. Bassekou soon met his future wife, singer Amy Sacko, who now sings with Ngoni Ba. Bassekou began developing his own trademark techniques on the ngoni. He moved to Bamako in the mid-‘80s and soon met the stupendous young kora (21-stringed griot harp) player Toumani Diabaté. Toumani was Bassekou’s equal, a virtuoso of regal musical lineage destined to break new ground and redefine his instrument. Toumani’s guest appearance on I Speak Fula is the latest of many collaborations. “I’ve always worked with Toumani,” said Bassekou. “We’ve done at least 8 CDs together.”

A 1985 concert with Nainy Diabaté at Bamako’s legendary train station venue—the Buffet de la Gare—marks the moment when Bassekou emerged decisively as a trendsetter. Nainy was looking for a new sound, and Bassekou a new role for the ngoni player in an ensemble. “The old guys always sat down when they played,” he recalled. “But when the guitarists soloed, they went up front.” Bassekou had equipped his instrument with a strap, and when it came time for him to solo, he surprised everyone by standing up and commanding center stage. This gesture symbolized his intentions for the ngoni. “Ever since that moment, I followed this path,” said Bassekou. “Because the ngoni is a great instrument. You can play any sort of music with it. We don’t have to stay in the back. That’s impossible. This is why I have struggled to create Ngoni Ba, to put this instrument on the international stage. We are a new generation now. I can’t just do what my father did and what my grandfather did.”

And he hasn’t. Bassekou soon developed a unique style of picking the strings with both up- and down-strokes, and later, sliding and bending notes. Today, young ngoni players in Mali practice Bassekou’s techniques as part of inherited tradition. Bassekou’s discovery of blues and the banjo came when he made his first U.S. visit in 1990. At a banjo music festival in Tennessee, he began a lasting friendship with Taj Mahal, who nudged him onto the stage before a hall full of banjo players. Many had never even considered the African origin of their instrument, but they would never forget what they saw Bassekou do. That encounter was a revelation for Bassekou as well. “Up to that moment, I had never seen a banjo,” he recalled. “I had never even heard the sound of a banjo. I touched the instrument and found I could play it. It was like the ngoni. I have not had an experience like that with any other instrument.” Bassekou’s coming collaboration with Bela Fleck was probably fated at that moment.

Bassekou returned to Mali to participate in one groundbreaking project after another. He shone in a jazz-inspired instrumental trio with Toumani and balafon maestro Keletigui Diabaté. Bassekou also performed in Toumani’s Symmetric Orchestra, which forged a wide-ranging fusion of griot music and global pop. He married Amy Sacko and helped her earn a reputation as “The Tina Turner of Mali.” By the time Bassekou returned to the U.S. with Toumani in 1999 to record the landmark Kulanjan album with Taj Mahal, he was unquestionably the most innovative and exciting ngoni player on the scene.

The coming years would see more firsts, a free-flowing jam with Bonnie Raitt in Bamako in 1999, and collaborations with the late, great scion of northern Malian music, Ali Farka Toure. Bassekou played a central role in Ali’s final recording, Savane (2006), a career-capping work for an artist who has done more than any to reveal the African roots of blues and rock ‘n’ roll. On Savane, Bassekou mostly plays the deep-toned ngoniba. And it was somewhere around this time that he settled on the idea of creating a group combining ngonis of different sizes to make a new sound—the sound of Ngoni Ba.

Bassekou’s longtime friend and booster Lucy Duran (a BBC radio host, record producer, and Mande music scholar) produced the band’s debut, Segu Blue. Before long, Bassekou and Ngoni Ba were touring Europe and in high demand. I Speak Fula builds on the success of Segu Blue. Its 11 tracks provide a star-studded tour of pan-Malian music, including collaborations with Toumani Diabaté, griot vocal legend Kasse Mady Diabaté, master of the horse-hair soku fiddle Zoumana Tereta, and guitar phenomenon Vieux Farka Toure, Ali’s precociously talented son. The release of I Speak Fula and Ngoni Ba’s first U.S. tour mark the latest leg of an extraordinary musical journey.

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