The three black string bands playing at the Spoleto Festival USA this year all feature some version of the banjo. But while the Ebony Hillbillies and Carolina Chocolate Drops hail from the U.S. and use the familiar five-string banjo, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba will use the instrument's softer-sounding, less-twangy early ancestor, a Malian lute called the ngoni (pronounced nn-go-knee). In Ngoni Ba, which literally translates to "bass ngoni," the four ngoni players use instruments with four to seven strings and are accompanied by two percussionists and a vocalist, Amy Sacko, Kouyate's wife.
In a translated interview conducted via e-mail, Kouyate discussed the importance of keeping the ngoni at the forefront of Malian music.
Q: Why was the ngoni traditionally considered a supporting instrument for the kora, a 21-string harp-lute?
A: In performances, the ngoni player traditionally sat below the eye level of a small audience so attention was more easily focused on someone sitting upright. Playing standing up is one of the innovations I introduced in Mali, much criticized at the time by people who stuck to more than seven centuries of tradition!
Another reason the ngoni was left in the background was the lack of a wider range of pitch. The way out of this has been to develop a variety of sizes and therefore of pitch that Ngoni Ba now uses.
The last element missing was in the attitude of players who were unable to adapt to a more modern virtuoso style of playing. We believe we have changed that with the Ngoni Ba sound.
Q: What is the difference between the kora and the ngoni?
A: The ngoni is the oldest West African stringed instrument, and the kora is the youngest, but with the most strings. The kora produces a larger number of fixed notes of beautiful quality, while the ngoni, with its few strings, is versatile and capable of "bending" notes with microvariations on its pitch, like the human voice.
Q: What inspired you to create an ngoni quartet?
A: I felt strongly that the ngoni was being crowded out, both by other traditional instruments and naturally louder modern ones. I know what the instrument is capable of producing, and that if I did not take the lead to bring this to the attention of music-lovers, then a whole range of possibilities would have been lost.
Q: I have read that when you were 16, you played the ngoni center-stage, the way a rock star plays a guitar. What inspired you to do this?
A: I got fed up of sitting on the floor to play. I also had an especially smart white shirt I was very pleased with. I wanted to stand up and see what effect the shirt and the ngoni would have together on the audience. The other musicians thought I was crazy. But it worked.
Q: You have worked with many great artists, including blues musician Taj Mahal. What effect have they had on you and your music?
A: They have spurred me on to new efforts. When you play with a master of a different style of music, you identify what part is like your own style and then you listen carefully to what is different and new. This brings a special response from your own music, maybe one you hadn't realized was possible before.
Q: Can you explain the connection between American blues and of Malian music?
A: To someone who knows only one of these traditions, and then listens to the other, it is clear that they have the same roots. Twenty years ago, Taj Mahal and I were together on stage in just this position, and each of us immediately recognized that the other musician was playing in the same tradition.
Q: Do people react to your music the same around the world?
A: Wherever we play, whatever their ages, all want to dance once Ngoni Ba starts to play.
Jessica Novak is a Goldring Arts Journalism Program writer. Reach her at email@example.com.