Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba at Cedar Cultural Center, 1/25/14


Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Saturday, January 25, 2014

A ngoni isn't much to look at. A four-stringed lute that resembles a children's canoe paddle, it's a centuries-old-old prototype for more familiar and expressive instruments. As Bassekou Kouyate explained at the Cedar Saturday night, in halting but expressive English, the West African instrument is "banjo's father, guitar's grandfather." Yet in nine songs, over the course of two sets, the Malian master demonstrated how a modern musician can expand the capabilities of a traditional instrument without abandoning its distinctive character.

See Also: Slideshow: Bassekou Kouyate at the Cedar, 1/25/14

Kouyate, who's played with Youssou N'Dour and Bela Fleck is an innovator. He plays the ngoni standing up, a break with traditionally seated performances. He also invented the bass ngoni that accompanied him. And while the instrument's natural sound has an almost harp-like quality, Kouyate often mutes and plucks the strings, filtering them through a wah wah pedal for to create an effect that recalls the guitars of Senegalese mbalax.

Kouyate began recording his 2013 album, Jama Ko (Out Here), on the same day Muslim rebels unseated his friend, President Amadou Toumani Touré, and the recent civil war in Mali had special significance for musicians, since the rebels' political program includes bans on music. But Kouyate shared none of this backstory live; he didn't even make the most general wish for peace at home.

His commentary was brief, good-natured, and often self-deprecating. He joked "Here is very hot - Mali is very cold" at one point, and "My English is very good" at another. Before playing the bluesy "Poye 2" he apologized, claiming that he was not as good a singer as the American bluesman Taj Mahal, who sings that tune on Jama Ko.


But with such an excellent band, Kouyate needed to make no political statements - his music was just as effective out of context. Every musician in Ngoni Ba is a family member: two brothers, a son, a nephew, and his wife Amy Sacko handled most of the vocal duties.

[page] And the closeness of their personal relationships contributed to the warmth of the group dynamic. Kouyate may have been the patriarch, but he was first among equals, modernizing his traditional family role in much the same way as he'd modernized traditional ngoni playing.

Critic's bias: Jama Ko is the best African album from last year.

The crowd: Mostly middle-aged white folks, with a few middle-aged Africans.

Overheard in the crowd: A white guy who spoke fluent Bambara, or at least had enough of a command of the Malian language to enter into a long conversation with Kouyate.

Random notebook dump: As my friend Dylan noted after the show, Kouyate's stagemanship was sometimes at odds with the ensemble nature of his band's performance. The strength of Kouyate's musicianship is in its interplay with the other musicians, the slight variations on circular patterns playing subtly against the beat. But he would step forward at times as though performing a jazz or rock solo, without actually altering his playing much, and the audience would applaud. Still, as anyone who remembers the '80s can tell you, there are worse concessions to Euro-American expectations that African musicians can make.