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Bassekou Kouyate Speaks Ngoni

bassekou kouyate during sound check 3/20/10
bassekou kouyate during sound check 3/20/10
jill ettinger

It’s been a week since witnessing the mind-blowing performance by Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba at the Getty in Los Angeles. And still, finding the words to describe the experience is a challenge.

On this early spring evening from atop the mountain where the Getty provides the best view of Los Angeles, the scent of jasmine was inescapable. Pouring down over the city like an aromatic feast, the beautiful music cascading out from the Getty’s auditorium enhanced the night air as Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni ba gave a gripping performance. The stage was all smiles and fancy footwork as the band cycled deeper into their zone. Audience members could not contain themselves and filled the edges of the stage, possessed by the music.

The ngoni is a chilling instrument. Much like the generations of Kouyate ngoni players before Bassekou, he captivates his audience with a flawless performance. Leaving the Getty’s acoustically-addictive auditorium, the buzz was penetrating; comments such as “astonishing”, “incredible”, “unbelievable” and “best show ever,” still fell short of accurately describing the magnitude of this performance. As band members stood for photographs and post-show cigarettes outside of the auditorium, they seemed un-phased by the magic they created, much like a humble shaman calmly ushering out the spirits he just conjured.

A predecessor of the banjo, the ngoni is a stringed Arican lute instrument. Kouyate comes from a lineage of ngoni players, bringing the instrument back into Malian fashion (where guitar has been a dominant force), through not only his mastery, but three members of his family playing variously pitched ngonis alongside him. He’s even re-fashioned the ngoni to include deeper bass notes. A former supporting band member for African legend, Toumani Diabate (who also appears on the album), Kouyate has carved a niche for himself, his wife and Ngoni ba’s lead vocalist, Amy Sacko, and the members of the band, which includes Kouyate’s younger brother, Omar, who pulls the blues out of the ngoni like someone twice his age would only hope to.

I Speak Fula, the second release from Bassekou Kouyate and ngoni ba(subpop), is a startling meditation. Like its focal instrument, the album’s eleven tracks are gracefully fierce, recounting a history spanning hundreds of years, yet totally present. Giving urgent upgrades to beauty, sacko sings in fula, the native language of Mali, weaving in between the range of ngonis plucking in every direction.

The live performance only cements the achievement on I Speak Fula. It’s as critical a work for Kouyate as it is for Sacko, deserving all the accolades and hype. Kouyate’s tracks will be retooled, remixed and replayed for centuries forward. Like his family tree of ngoni players, he is indeed weaving a future out of magic strings.




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