As a griot, Mali’s Bassekou Kouyaté traces his musical lineage back to Sundiata Keita’s expansive 13th century empire, a wealthy polity that encompassed a huge swath of West Africa. His ancestors entertained the royal court and every note he plays on the ngoni, a plucked string ancestor of the banjo, embodies a tradition handed down for generations by word of mouth. But Kouyaté is not beholden to the past. Ngoni Ba, the band he brings to Zellerbach Hall on Saturday for a Cal Performances double bill with Ethiopia’s Krar Collective, represents a radical evolution.
Determined to enhance the instrument’s visibility, Kouyaté assembled Ngoni Ba, an eight-piece combo that combines the rollicking energy a rock band with the emphatic call-and-response choruses of a gospel ensemble. Given that the ngoni is traditionally played while seated, Kouyaté’s most radical move was simply standing up.
“When I started making music with friends playing guitar and bass, I decided I wanted to be at the same level as the musicians surrounding me,” he says. “That was the first modification, not to the instrument itself, but the way to play the instrument, which changed the technique a little bit.”
Looking to expand the four-string ngoni’s harmonic palette, he added additional strings and introduced Ngoni Ba on 2007’s Segu Blue (Out Here Records), garnering tremendous success in Europe and winning a coveted BBC Radio 3 World Music Award. He refined the concept on 2009’s I Speak Fula, showcasing his ingenious orchestrations for his band, which is essentially an ngoni quartet backed by a rhythm section and the incantatory vocals of Kouyaté’s wife and creative partner Amy Sacko.
“The highest three ngonis already existed in traditional music, the smallest to play solo parts, and the alto and tenor,” Kouyaté says. “But I created an ngoni bass. I made tests, tried different sizes and tried different materials until we came up with one to play the bass range.”
The version he’s touring with now is a slimmed down six-piece combo with three ngonis and two traditional percussionists (on yabara, tama, and calabash). These days he doesn’t have much to prove, as his innovations have breathed new life into an ancient instrument.
“The ngoni is the griot’s identity,” Kouyaté says. “Even before we had writing, we had the ngoni in our countries. But I was the first ngoni player to lead a band. I created my own way of playing it, which is different from my father’s and my grandfather’s. Now there are many bands led by ngoni players.”
Kouyaté has not only transformed the ngoni’s role in Mali through his own band and collaborations with kora master Toumani Diabaté. He contributed to the late great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré’s 2006 album Savane, energized Youssou N’Dour’s 2007 CD Rokku Mi Rokka, and played an essential role on 2009’s Fondo by Mali’s guitar scion Vieux Farka Touré (son of Ali). He also serves as a musical ambassador, collaborating with jazz guitarists Bill Frisell and Leni Stern, and jamming with Bonnie Raitt and Bono.
Kouyaté’s fierce bandstand energy is what attracted the attention of Sub Pop, a label better known for introducing Seattle’s grunge sound than for its international roster. Looking to break through the aural clutter that crowds so much amazing international music out of the American market, Sub Pop created a new imprint, Next Ambiance, and launched it with I Speak Fula.
Before he started touring under his own name Kouyaté was most visible in the U.S. through his work with banjo master Béla Fleck, who featured him on the Grammy Award-nominated soundtrack to Sascha Paladino’s documentary about Fleck exploring the banjo’s African roots, Throw Down Your Heart.
“Bassekou is on a mission to raise the profile of the ngoni, which he calls the Malian banjo (actually the banjo is the American ngoni),” Fleck wrote in an email. “With his incredible band Ngoni Ba, and their fantastic playing and singing, he’s sure to reach his goal.”
One reason why Western audiences respond so readily to some Malian music is that the country’s Sahal belt south of the Sahara is a wellspring for the blues. Not that Kouyaté realized the connection while growing up in rural area so isolate he rarely even heard a radio. His musical world was defined by griots from the Bambara tradition. It wasn’t until a friend convinced him to attend a banjo festival in Tennessee in 1990 that he discovered the blood ties between Mali and America during an informal session with Taj Mahal.
“He played blues and I played my pentatonic music,” Kouyaté recalls. “And he said, ‘So, you know the blues?’ ‘No, I’m played the pentatonic music that we play where I come from.’ He was very happy. He said, ‘It’s great. It’s the same thing!’ From now on I’ll call myself Daddy Kouyaté. You’re my brother. I was very happy.”
The other act on the Cal Performances misnamed “Afropop Spectacular” program—Kouyaté’s music isn’t Afropop by any definition—is Krar Collective, a London-based trio of Ethiopian musicians led by Temesgen Zeleke, a protégé of Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke.
Much like Kouyaté, Zeleke has transformed a traditional lyre, the six-string krar, associated with Ethiopia’s traditional azmaris, minstrels who sing improvised verses and often serve as repositories of communal lore. With his plugged in krar, Zeleke has added heft to the instrument’s sonic signature, while Genet Asefa provides clarion vocals and Amare (who goes by one name) powers the ensemble on double-headed kebero drums.
Don’t miss: the 9th Annual Bay Area Flamenco Festival, opening tonight
The 9th Annual Bay Area Flamenco Festival opens at La Peña tonight with José Méndez, who hails from a legendary clan of Gypsy singers from Jerez de la Frontera, Los Pinini scion Mari Peña, a powerhouse vocalist from Utrera, and guitar master Antonio Moya, who has worked with many of flamenco’s greatest singers.
The Berkeley Arts Festival space on University is closing soon (I’ll report more on this later), but it’s going out with a blast of great music. On Sunday the long-running collective Lost Trio, featuring saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, bassist Dan Seamans and drummer Tom Hassett, celebrate the release of a new album devoted to the music of Thelonious Monk, MonkWork (Evander Music). The second set features guitarist/composer Nathan Clevenger’s stellar band with Kasey Knudsen on alto sax, Cory Wright on tenor sax, clarinet and flute, Aaron Novik on bass clarinet and clarinet, bassist Sam Bevan, drummer Jon Arkin, and special guest Jordan Glenn on vibes and percussion.
For more events in and around Berkeley, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events there — the calendar is free and self-serve.