The ngoni is an ancient West African instrument whose role in regional music had largely been replaced by guitar until young Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate literally stood up and took the instrument where no ngoni had gone before. An oblong lute with three to five strings, the ngoni is played with a percussive picking style similar to that of the banjo, which slaves taken to the Americas created from their memories of ngonis. One day Kouyate attached a strap to his ngoni, got out of his chair, and stepped to the front of the local band he was playing with when it was time for his solo. Later he invented new playing techniques, including bending notes; tinkered with new designs such as a bass ngoni; incorporated elements of jazz, rock, and bluegrass into traditional styles; and for the first time formed a ngoni ensemble. That group, Ngoni Ba, the prototype for what has become hundreds in Mali, features four ngoni players and Kouyate's wife, Amy Sacko, adding undulating vocals. Meanwhile Kouyate has turned up on sessions with the likes of Béla Fleck, Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, and Bono. On the band's latest album, I Speak Fula (Sub Pop/Next Ambiance), the picking ranges from frenetic, bluegrass-like dashes to improvisations with the flash of rock solos and sinuous meditations deeply entrenched in the blues, which have strong Malian roots. Great stuff.
Sat., April 10, 7 p.m., 2010