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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Bassekou Kouyate is a virtuoso of the African lute called the ngoni. His groundbreaking technique has made him a legend in his native Mali.

Music reviewer Banning Eyre says his new release with the group Ngoni Ba, called "I Speak Fula," has brought appeal that's sure to win fans in the U.S.

(Soundbite of music)

BANNING EYRE: Listen to Bassekou Kouyate improvising a flashy intro on his fretless lute.

(Soundbite of music)

EYRE: The lightning-quick flourishes come straight out of Bassekou's musical heritage as a griot, a kind of musical historian. But those bluesy note bends are his own, just one Bassekou innovation that younger players now imitate routinely. The group Ngoni Ba marshals four ngonis, creating a prickly thicket of sound.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. AMI SACKO (Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: That's Bassekou's wife, Ami Sacko, singing. In Mali, the ngoni is typically the composer's instrument supporting the singer from the sidelines. This group does feature vocalists - mostly 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 Bassekou's turn, he just explodes with ideas and energy, even using electric guitar effects to beef up his ancient sound.

(Soundbite of music)

EYRE: Bassekou's resume includes encounters with the likes of Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt and recently Bela Fleck, who joins Bassekou on 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 some notable guests, but they are all fellow Malians, like guitar sensation Vieux Farka Toure.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Bassekou 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 of the south pervade these tracks. This is Bassekou's personal vision of his own rich, multicultural nation. And it feels as fresh and imaginative as it does authentic.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: The album is called "I Speak Fula" by Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba. Reviewer Banning Eyre is senior editor at afropop.org.

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