Let's start with the instrument itself. If you’re unfamiliar with the ngoni, here’s the lowdown: it’s an ancient four-stringed instrument from West Africa, a relative of the American banjo. The ngoni maker stretches cowhide over a hollowed-out piece of wood, and four strings are stung up a neck that looks like a broom handle.
Sounds simple, right? Well, Bassekou Kouyate has made many innovations to this instrument, which was invented in the eighth century. His innovations include:
-He was the first to play the ngoni standing up, slung over his shoulder, guitar-style
-He added extra strings — sometimes seven, sometimes nine
-He built bigger-bodied ngonis — (bass and tenor)
-He started using a wah-wah pedal for his ngoni
- He created a group in which the ngoni is the featured instrument
I heard Kouyate in concert not long ago at The Great Hall in Toronto, and he was amazing. He finds the groove, comes right to the edge of the stage and throws his head back while his fingers fly over the strings. He bobs his head in time to the music, and smiles and grimaces as his fingers slide up and down the neck of his ngoni.
His beautiful wife, Ami Sacko, dances behind him, adding vocals and sensuality. She’s been called the Tina Turner of Mali, and — as she captures the audience’s eye — I can see why.
The groove is laid down by a “bassist” playing a very large version of the ngoni, a percussionist pounding on a hollowed calabash, and another musician who alternates between the shekere and the talking drum. Two more “tenor” ngonis add layers and texture.
For 90 minutes, the audience forgot it was a cold, rainy Sunday evening. We danced and shouted encouragement as the band ripped through some great grooves.
That was the last night of the band’s North American tour, and they were heading back to Mali the next day. Together, band and audience united for something magical — and then after an encore, we headed back into the rain.
The photos at the top of the post capture some of the feeling at that night’s concert in Toronto, but you can hear for yourself some of the Kouyate magic. Just check out these videos:
Bassekou Kouyate with his band Ngoni Ba:
Bassekou Kouyate with Bela Fleck:
So, would you agree? Is Bassekou Kouyate the Jimi Hendrix of the ngoni?
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