Bassekou Kouyate is a virtuoso of the African lute called the ngoni. His groundbreaking technique has made him a legend at age 44 in his native Mali. These days, Kouyate fronts the group Ngoni Ba, whose new release, I Speak Fula, is sure to win fans in the U.S.
Kouyate's playing style incorporates lightning-quick flourishes that come straight out of his musical heritage as a griot — a kind of musical historian. But those bluesy note bends are his own — just one Kouyate innovation that younger players now imitate routinely. The group Ngoni Ba marshals four ngonis, creating a prickly thicket of sound.
In Mali, the ngoni is typically the composer's instrument, supporting the singer from the sidelines. This group does feature vocalists — mostly Kouyate's wife, Sacko — but it breaks with tradition by bringing the ngoni center stage. The players, including three Kouyate brothers, take extended solos, especially in live shows. And when it's Kouyate's turn, he just explodes with ideas and energy, even using electric-guitar effects to beef up his ancient sound.
Kouyate's resume includes encounters with the likes of Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt and recently Bela Fleck, who joins Kouyate for a string of U.S. performances this winter. But the CD I Speak Fula wisely avoids crossovers with Western music and cameos by foreign celebrities. There are notable guests, but they're all fellow Malians, like guitar sensation Vieux Farka Toure.
Kouyate calls this CD I Speak Fula, but Fula is not his language. And that's the point. Timbres, tongues and rhythms from the desert nomads of the Malian north to the savanna hunters in the south pervade these tracks. This is Kouyate's personal vision of his own rich, multicultural nation, and it feels as fresh and imaginative as it does authentic.