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Deep Roots

By Mike Hotter

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba

The Sanctuary for Independent Media, March 24

In the remarkable documentary travelogue Throw Down Your Heart (2008), American banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck travels to where his instrument is believed to have originated, to central and western Africa. One of the first musicians he visits upon arrival is his Malian friend Bassekou Kouyate, a master of the lutelike instrument named the ngoni. His guest spot in the film seems to have sparked something extraordinary, for since that time, Kouyate recorded an album (I Speak Fula) released under the aegis of Sup Pop Records, and embarked on a whirlwind tour of the States that would see him grace one of the stages at Carnegie Hall two days after last week’s stop in Troy. Luckily, the word got out about what a special privilege it would be to see Kouyate and his band in action, for the Sanctuary was filled to capacity with an all-ages crowd ready to dance and be bedazzled.

An unassuming stringed instrument usually made from goat skin and wood, the ngoni is said to be the direct precursor to the banjo, brought to America over the Atlantic in the evil days of the slave trade. If blues begat rock & roll, it could also be said that the blues sprang from Malian roots. Kouyate’s band, Ngoni Ba, includes three fellow ngoni players, each playing permutations that covered the mid, high and bass frequencies. All used Western style tube amplifiers, which together with two percussionists made a sound comparable in size and heft to any rock band worth their salt. Kouyate started the show by introducing a lilting piece on his own from offstage; he then nodded each instrument in to create a deep and lissome funk that had heads bobbing and people leaving their seats looking for a place to move around in conjunction with the rhythm.

Kouyate is a griot, or a storyteller, but the language he is most fluent in is French. While he seemed needlessly abashed about this, when it comes to universals, Kouyate is a master of his craft. All watched amazed and befuddled as unending streams of complexity were unleashed by Kouyate’s extraordinary right-hand picking technique. But he left plenty of room for the other players to take the lead, often deferring to a younger protégé with a choppier but still entrancing ngoni technique of his own. Together the four ngonis sounded like one grand kora, the harplike instrument that also calls Mali its home. The two percussionists were joy and passion personified, one of them giving big leg kicks from time to time when the rhythm reached a particularly roiling head of steam.

In any other band, Kouyate’s wife, Ami Sacko, would have been the star of the show. At times she would sing in a soothing, pixie-ish voice, while elsewhere she would unleash a muezzin-like wail that could make your breath catch in your throat. Throughout it all, one could hear how deep the confluence of Western and Malian music runs—not only a source for the blues, but also bluegrass, rock and country. When Kouyate would dapple his ngoni with traces of wah-wah pedal, the only player I could think to compare him to was Jimmy Page in his early prime, with their similar abilities to improvise at a frenetic pace at length, all while keeping the thrill of scaling new musical heights.

As the night ended after an hour and a half of musical joy of the highest order, smiles rained down from all around. Kouyate and company join the ancient and the modern, and leave one with a feeling of having the soul cleansed. Keep your eyes and ears open for the next time they come around.

Six-String Section

Photo: Joe Putrock

Georgia band Manchester Orchestra rocked Northern Lights on Monday night. The U.S. tour that brought the band to the Capital Region, in support of their latest LP Mean Everything to Nothing, also includes fellow Atlanta band O’Brother, Scottish rockers Biffy Clyro, and southeastern favorites the Features.





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