Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba At The Clifton Center

By Alexander Clark Campbell

Elsewhere and at another time, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba(nd) played at the Clifton Center on Thursday, November 17th.

Malian musical legend Bassekou Kouyatehas created an entire band made out of ngonis (in the shadow of the more popular kora) to highlight one of Africa's most prominent and versatile stringed instruments, not usually known to Western audiences, but believed by some to be the ancestor of the banjo (but isn't that said about all Western African stringed instruments?).

The set-up of the instruments, in Bassekou's words, is, 'The bass ngoni in place of the bass guitar; the solo ngoni in place of the solo guitar; medium ngoni to reinforce the bass, and another medium ngoni.' His band is set up like a rock band with the calabash substituting for the drum and the musicians playing them standing up instead of, as is traditional, sitting down, as in playing a lap guitar. In other words, the ngoni is the Jan of Malian instruments while the kora is the Marsha – kora, kora, kora! (not, N.B., a film about the dropping of Malian instruments on Pearl Harbor).

Bassekou himself is quite versatile, having recently completed the long-awaited Afrocubism project (fifteen years in the making), in which he and his crew team up with Cuban musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club – an idea from legendary world-music producer Nick Gold. He has played with musicians he admires very much– Bela Fleck, Bill Frissell, and Taj Mahal.

This is not the first time a Malian musician has been in town recently – Mansa Sissoko performed here with Canadian Jayme Stone at the Bomhard in March of 2010 to promote their collaborative album 'Appalachia to Africa.' Although, as in most Malian efforts, the Kora was highlighted in that concert, the ngoni is also present, though usually relegated to the background (and not much mentioned – as in Toumani Diabiate and on Ali Farke Toure CDs. (Bassekou played ngonis of different sizes and shapes on those CDs as well as Taj Mahal/Toumani Diabate's Kulanjan.)

I've talked about the ngoni before, in my post regarding Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko's concert here (it – meaning my post – was entitled 'Ouroboros: Music of the River & Roads – or, Lone Men w/Guitars': http://www.louisvillemusic.org/terrabeat/2010/04/23/ouroboros-music-of-the-river-roads-%E2%80%93-or-lone-men-wguitars/). The ngoni is definitely the music of rivers and that of travelers, with Bassekou constantly touring the world (Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas) year after year.

Recommended tips for the weary: find a quiet space, get into lotus position, and turn on Bassekou Kouyate's ngoni music (no longer the Jan of the Malian instruments thanks to him), and let it transport you to Kingdom of Mali, the Heart of the Moon, being protected by your boubou or pagne (depending on gender), sunglasses, hat, and shea butter for added protection from the unforgivable, hot sun if the lee of the baobab doesn't suffice: clipping through the endless river Niger on a pinasse with its Pirate-like sail; awing over the huge termite mound-like adobe buildings of Djenné with Eeyore-like donkeys ambling in the foreground; the ancient rich libraries of Islamic, poverty-ridden Timbuctou in the North; the never-ending oceanic dunes of the SaHel(l?); red dust, dirt, and clay everywhere; grassland scrub and small forests in the West, the Spaghetti-Western-desolate, forgotten town of Kidal in the East with the nomadic Toureg – those mean rockers the Sahara; reading the legend of Sundiata: the basis for the Lion King; we could stop in Bamako out of curiosity, but why?, etc.

Mali may be one of the poorest countries in the World, but it is one of the richest in terms of culture, especially in terms of literature (both ancient and modern) and music. Especially especially music: Mali is often thought of by music scholars in romantic terms as the place where the American sounds of blues and rock first fomented, then were brought here by African slaves. Legend Ali Farke Toure thought he was hearing traditional Malian music sung by an American when he first heard blues legend John Lee Hooker as a teenager. I at first didn't hear the American-Malian connection when I got into this music five years ago; I did hear it after a while, especially when I heard Kulanjan and the Toureg desert rockers of Mali and Niger – that familiar, swampy threnody we call American blues. Implausibly, the winding river of Niger comes to an end as we snap back into reality.