Bassekou Kouyate is a musical wizard and one of Africa's most innovative bandleaders. He plays the ngoni, the traditional lute from Mali that dates back hundreds of years and is the musical forebear of the American banjo. His griot family has included noted ngoni players for many generations, but Bassekou has re-invented both the ngoni and its musical role. He's added several strings to create a seven-string instrument, and has created the first all-ngoni group, featuring four different-sized instruments, including a bass ngoni, also his invention. Bassekou calls this new group Ngoni Ba, adding two traditional percussionists and his wife, Amy Sacko, on vocals.
The results are spectacular. Although based on traditional Mande music, this is an entirely new sound — as powerful as the best rock 'n' roll bands, and certainly more danceable. The virtuosity of Bassekou and his musical family is undeniable, but at the same time, it's readily accessible to any music fan.
I have to admit that I'm somewhat biased; I started a new record label, Next Ambiance, with Seattle's Sub Pop Records just to release the band's new recording, I Speak Fula. I saw Kouyate play more than a dozen times in the past few months during his band's first U.S. tour, which included more than 60 dates and several shows with Bela Fleck. He has won over fans from coast to coast; KEXP was lucky to get the group into Cutting Room Studios the day before it played at New York's Carnegie Hall, in Zankel Hall — not bad for your first time in New York. Kouyate performed three songs from his new album, as well as a favorite from his 2007 debut, a showcase for the ngoni called "Ngoni Fola," or "beautiful ngoni." After listening to Bassekou and his band, you'll see how Bassekou has brought this ancient African instrument front and center, and right into the 21st century.