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Published: 2015/09/16
by Kayla Clancy

Ancient Grooves & the Electric Evolution of the African Ngoni with Bassekou Kouyate

Growing up in the West African country of Mali, Bassekou Kouyate recalls the tradition of the Ngoni running through the veins of his culture since he was a child. An instrument dating back nearly seven centuries, the Ngoni is the ancestor of the banjo. Bassekou elevates the Ngoni to a new state of groove- a fusion of old traditions and electric equipment- painting the roots of musical source with brightly colored rhythm and space for all to hear. For Bassekou music is also a very real platform for expression of thoughts on humanity and society. Bassekou hopes to use music to expel negativity, shed light on corruption, and bring peace to people through the inexplicable experience of music. Playing only with traditional African instruments, Bassekou’s band radiates vibrant sound with multiple Ngoni’s and percussion; the result is a very groovy Afro-Rock. The band of this tour consists only of family- Bassekou’s wife, sons, nephew, brother, and cousin all playing on stage together.

How did music first come to you in life, and when did you start playing it?

I started playing music with my father, learning the Ngoni and music in general when I was 11. Music has been in my family for hundreds and hundreds of years. As a griot it is part of the role in Malian society to be a musician.

When was the first time you remember having an intense musical experience or feeling?

One of my strongest souvenirs, or experiences, was when I came to the United States in 89 for the first time to participate in a banjo festival in Tennessee. I was playing right after Taj Mahal. He had introduced me and played a song in tribute and told the crowd I was the next generation Ngoni player, ancestor of the banjo. There were so many people. I had never seen a big crowd like that and when I stepped on stage my knee started shaking, and then the second knee started shaking. I was able to stay on stage and do my act, so that was definitely a memorable musical experience!

What European or American music inspired you growing up?

I started listening to guitar players, so Jimi Hendrix of course. Otherwise, I come from the fourth region of Mali where the normal music they play over there is actually where American Blues comes from. When Taj Mahal first heard the music from the fourth region of Mali he said, “wow, that’s it”. As in, that’s where the blues playing in North America comes from. When I was young I liked listening to many different types of music like jazz, blues, local orchestral music, but you couldn’t say there was one thing that meant more than the other.

How would you compare African Blues to American Blues?

African Blues, especially the one that comes from the fourth region of Mali, works on a pentatonic scale exactly as American Blues does. So there’s not really a difference because that’s what the Afro-Americans brought with them when they came to America four hundred years ago. They brought that scale, that music, that groove, and that kind of inspiration. Of course being [in America] and having different inspiration, the music evolved in its own way, but basically it’s the same Blues.

The tradition of the Ngoni has been passed through your family for generations. Why do you think it is important to continue the tradition?

The Ngoni has been in my family for generations and generations. My great great great grandfather was playing Ngoni and so on it goes. It’s not an obligation to play the Ngoni, but it’s certainly welcome to do so. Whenever a member of your family wants to play Ngoni, as a father, you welcome this interest. I am proud to have modernized the Ngoni a little bit. Before I started playing standing up and adding distortion, less and less people would play the Ngoni. Now there’s really a wave going back up. Young people can see that you can make modern music with a traditional instrument, and tradition is important. That’s why I’m still working very hard to make sure the tradition goes on. I modernize the Ngoni with guitar amps and pedals, but still reflect the traditional sound and instrument.

What do you find unique about the Ngoni?

What is unique and original about the Ngoni is that it is actually one of the oldest stringed instruments known to mankind. It’s more than 2,000 years old. So, it’s very original in that regard; it is the origin. It has inspired all the other stringed instruments that came after it- the guitar, banjo, kora, violin, everything comes from the Ngoni. That’s what makes it so important, and why it’s so important to keep the tradition alive.

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