Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba
at Cleveland Musem of Art
By Meghan Farnsworth
On Friday, November 4, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Viva! & Gala series continued with an energetic performance by Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, a West African (Malian) family steeped in the tradition of the ngoni, an indigenous instrument similar to a banjo. At the start of the concert, listeners were told, “Leave your shoes outside. Tonight is a time to have fun and dance”, and this request could not better describe the aura of the performance. It was clear these were musicians raised on the premise of the heartiness of life because their music suggested this ethos. Through the rhythmic drive that resides in each of their songs, the unity of music, love, and family occupied every moment of Friday’s performance.
Several instrumental variants of the ngoni served as the bulk of the ensemble: the ngoni ba, the ngoni bass, and the calebasse. It was interesting to see these instruments next to each other because their origin is quite obvious: each contains a hollowed-out piece of wood strung together with a dowel and a set of strings that define the uniqueness of each instrument. However, one instrument sounds bright and sonorous while another contains a strange beauty in its overall sound. There is a resonant quality to this strange beauty that is dark and earthy, and it is as though we are hearing the originator of all gut stringed instruments.
Amy Sacko, Ngoni Ba’s singer, also delivered an aspect of the ngoni playing style in her vocals. This included the type of melismic playing featured in the ngoni improvisational form. Hearing this effect through Sacko's voice resulted in an illustration of sounds that felt personal, communicative, and beautifully haunting.
Kouyate has redefined the art of the ngoni, and in the process, extended its life among West African musicians. While residing in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, Kouyate grew up with the musical traditions of the region and also developed a style showcasing aspects of the era in which he was raised. While at the “Buffet de la Gare”, a club offering music for Bamako’s nighttime crowds, other musical influences became prominent in Kouyate’s music. These were rock ’n’ roll and American roots music. With exposure to these other musical forms, Kouyate established a signature sound for himself that integrated these then-modern elements with his inherited traditions. Instead of traditionally sitting with the ngoni stretched out across the player’s lap, Kouyate decided, as a teenager, to play the ngoni as a rock musician would: standing up with the instrument strapped around his shoulders. In this way, he could make more of a visual spectacle with the ngoni. Despite the controversy he sparked with these actions, Kouyate created a following that still continues today in West Africa. While in Bamako, Kouyate is constantly approached by young musicians with aspirations towards starting a ngoni band.
Kouyate has performed with such musicians as Béla Fleck, Bonnie Raitt, U2’s Bono, and Youssou N’Dour and has received, as he humbly told the audience during Friday’s concert, “a Grammy nomination”. With this evidence in mind, it is clear that Kouyate’s musical ambition goes beyond Africa. Judging from this performance it is easy to understand exactly why the world has taken notice.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com November 8, 2011.
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