The notes from the ngoni of Bassekou Kouyate can flow forward like a smooth stone skipped over the water, with a light, carefree, prancing quality that occasionally jag to the side. They also can take a plangent, resonant stand, dissipating downward instead of forward, into the deep well of the blues.
Kouyate comes from the ancestral, griot tradition of his native Mali. His father, Mustapha Kouyate, was a regional master of the ngoni — a thin-necked stringed instrument that is a sonic blend of the banjo and the lute — and performed duets throughout Mali with his wife (and Bassekou’s mother), vocalist Yagare Damba. Bassekou has upped the ante with his group, Ngoni Ba, featuring four ngonis — twirling together in a musical helix as complicated and pure as a strand of DNA under the microscope — played by him and his three brothers, with vocals from his wife, Ami Sacko.
Like many of his contemporaries, the 43-year-old Kouyate has also globalized from his griot roots, cross-pollinating with the highest caliber among the usual suspects, such as Taj Mahal and Bela Fleck, with whom he has shared the stage and picking techniques. As far back as 1990, he was playing at a festival in Tennessee devoted to the banjo. But aside from his family roots, the greatest influence upon his career has been the master kora player Toumani Diabate, who “discovered” and promoted Kouyate in 1987.
Kouyate has finally embarked upon his first, full-scale American tour, with Ngoni ba, which will stop at the Cedar Cultural Center Saturday night. He will play selections not only from his first album, “Segu Blue,” which was named Album of the Year (and Kouyate was dubbed African Artist of the Year) at the 2008 BBC3 World Music Award, but also from Ngoni ba’s new disc, “I speak fula.”
Here is a fabulous performance from Santa Cruz just last month, featuring a pair of Kouyate’s tremendous, blues-oriented solos around an extended talking drum solo.
Here is the group performing live at Royal Albert Hall in London in 2008.
Bassekou Kouyate at the Cedar Cultural Center, Saturday, April 10, 8 p.m., tickets $35, standing room only available.