Saturday, March 24, 2007


The ngoni, the small plucked lute said to be a forerunner of the banjo is most often found taking a support rôle to the guitar or kora. But it wasn’t always thus, and the world’s leading exponent has just released a new album that aims to bring the instrument — and the Bamana tradition from which it hails — firmly back centre stage. In a metaphorical world music parlour game to predict the musician most likely to fill the shoes of the late great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, the likeliest selections would probably be the great man’s nephew, mentee and fellow farmer Afel Bocoum, or Ali’s recent débutante son Vieux. But, despite the undoubted abilities of those two, the smart money might be better placed on one Bassekou Kouyaté, the musician who provided the essential crisp, atmospheric lead ngoni support on Ali Farka’s posthumous masterpiece, Savane. After years as one of the leading session players in Mali, Bassekou has announced his arrival as a major artist in his own right with Segu Blue. For the very first time, a quartet of ngoni players has been brought together along with some of Mali’s top vocalists (including Kouyaté’s wife, the honey-toned Amy Sacko) to create a seductive blend of enchanting blues numbers and sensuous dance tunes, sumptuously produced by Lucy Durán. On a flying promotional visit to London, the tall, genial Bassekou gave me the low-down on the album’s genesis, but first a brief history of how he got to this point. Born in Garana, about 60km from Segu on the banks of the river Niger, “I come from a long family of griots from both sides of my family, and I started playing the ngoni when I was 12. My father taught me how to play. Playing the ngoni is a family tradition, it is the only instrument we play.”
In the late ’80s Bassekou moved to Bamako, the capital of Mali, when he was still a teenager. “It was a bit different for me when I first arrived in Bamako, but I carried on with what I knew before, accompanying griottes (female praise singers) including my mother, who I also toured with in countries like Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.” While in Bamako, Kouyaté met Toumani Diabaté, forging a relationship that has seen Bassekou appear on many of the kora maestro’s albums, from Songhai in the early ’90s to last year’s acclaimed Boulevard de L’Independence with Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra. In fact, the Bassekou CV is littered with contributions to landmark albums, including veteran US blues-man Taj Mahal’s ground breaking collaboration with Toumani, Kulanjan. “I met Taj Mahal at a banjo festival in Tennessee in the early ’90s. I also met people there who at the time were looking for the source of the banjo, and when they saw the ngoni they found it a fascinating instrument. They showed me some of the earliest banjos, which were really similar to the ngoni and which were made in a similar way to the ngoni. I still have one of these at home. People say that the guitar comes from the ngoni as well. In fact, Ali Farka Touré started out by playing it, and he tried to get that sound when he played guitar, which is why he sounds different to any other guitar player in the world. It was Ali who encouraged me to do something on own. I thought I was not quite ready yet but Ali said, ‘yes you must do it’”. But surely even Ali Farka couldn’t have foreseen what Kouyaté would do with the instrument, bringing an ensemble approach to what were previously duet or solo pieces. The result is an arrangement that draws out the full versatility of the instrument, with the large (ba) ngoni interweaving melodies with the two smaller models, all anchored down by the soft pulse of the bass ngoni. It’s a far cry from the sparse, earthy blues delivered in the ’60s by Bassekou’s grandfather, the legendary Banzoumana Sissoko. Indeed, at times you would think that a kora player has sneaked into the studio, such are the intricate and satisfying melodic capabilities explored by the ensemble. Bassekou: “Yes, this is a brand new style. Previously you’d only hear one or two ngonis together, but having seen orchestras of guitars and other instruments, I thought why not the ngoni? So I got some of my favourite players and students together and decided to see if we could work something out. The kora and the ngoni are strung similarly, and although the kora is better known in Europe, the ngoni is the older of the two, going back as far as the 13th Century. That’s why I created this album, so that it could be better known at home and internationally. I added more strings to the main instrument (up to seven from three or four), making it closer to the sound of the kora, giving it a similar taste. It’s a very versatile instrument, with thousands of possibilities. You can mimic the sound of the guitar or kora, or make it sound different to both. It’s up to you and how you play it.”
These innovations have helped bring a hitherto somewhat overlooked instrument and culture back into the public consciousness in Mali. A particular highlight of Segu Blue are the songs that explore the subtly rhythmic, pentatonic Bamana dance tunes. But with themes harking back to ancient battles and legends of the past, is it possible that some people in Mali find it difficult to relate to the music?
“Most people know the Manding music of the north, but aren’t very familiar with the sound of Segu. People listen to all sorts of different things — hip hop, rap, reggae, it depends who you are talking to. At the same time lots of people do like older styles and many people like to sit down and listen to music. I don’t think they mind what we are singing about. That’s why this music and album were so well received in Mali and it has led to a lot of coverage on TV and the radio.”
There certainly is a sense of timelessness to the songs, with Bassekou displaying a natural touch when it comes to marrying traditional motifs to modern arrangements. “Some of the songs I have written myself, but many are old songs that I have re-arranged so that they are more accessible to people today, they can have a connection to them. It’s still linked to what has gone before, but it’s like two types of glass, you can tell they are the same thing but they look completely different. The Bamana tradition in Segu is where the blues have come from, so we are also exploring the close relationship between American blues and Segu music. Plus, we are taking it further. I’ve created a school to teach the ngoni music of Segu, and hopefully Europeans will come and learn as well.”
And with Segu Blue as the foundation paper, this is an education we’ll all be able to enjoy.

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