Plucked from extinction

Boston Globe, March 26, 2010

One of the small indignities that African musicians face when on tour in this country is having to be rude to fellow countrymen when the breakneck road schedule leaves no time for proper courtesies.

“The other day we played in Alaska, and local Malians came to see us,” says Bassekou Kouyate, master of the ngoni, a traditional Malian instrument. “They had cooked a meal for us at their home, and I had to turn them down.”

But Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba are on a mission that trumps social calls. Their marathon 47-city tour, which hits the Somerville Theatre tomorrow, is America’s introduction to an instrument that Kouyate has almost single-handedly rescued from obscurity and made a vibrant force at home in Mali and on the world music market.

The journey has taken Kouyate, 44, from a village upbringing in the savanna along the Niger River, to working with leading lights of Malian music like Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure, and now a recording contract that launches the world music imprint of Seattle indie label Sub Pop, onetime home of Mudhoney and Nirvana.

In the process Kouyate has taken the ngoni, a traditional four-stringed lute made of wood and cowhide that is the likely ancestor of the banjo and guitar, and given it a new prominence so remarkable that the president of Mali attended the release event for his new album, “I Speak Fula.”

A traditional instrument of griots, the caste of historians and storytellers, the ngoni was fading from use by the 1980s, Kouyate explains on the phone from a tour stop in the Bay Area. An accompanying instrument, its player seated in the background, it could not compete with the stage presence of the electric guitar.

“Ngoni players were just drifting away,” Kouyate says. “Young griots were playing the guitar. At one point, it was just me left.”

Some daring innovation went into his plan to rescue the in strument. He put a strap on the instrument so it could be played standing. He built new ngonis of various sizes and pitches. And he convened ensembles of multiple ngonis backed only by percussion.

“I tried to do an ngoni symphony, with 20 ngoni players,” Kouyate says. “People said, `Bassekou, you’re an idiot. It will never work.’ “

His obstinacy paid off. It gave birth to Ngoni Ba, featuring four ngoni players – all of them his relatives – along with two percussionists and Kouyate’s wife, singer Amy Sakho. The group’s first album, “Segu Blue,” appeared in 2007.

The rich sound of their pentatonic Bamana music, where connections to the blues surface with alluring clarity, is testament to the instrument’s potential and to Kouyate’s experiments, for instance making a bass ngoni suited for studio and stage.

“It’s larger, with thicker strings,” he says. “It sounded good, but then we tried to mike it and it produced a lot of feedback. I pondered for a long time and finally went to the market and bought a bunch of cotton and stuffed it into the hollow part. And that worked very well.”

Ngoni Ba is Kouyate’s turn as a leader after a career accompanying artists from Diabate and Youssou N’Dour to singer Dee Dee Bridgewater on her Malian project “Red Earth.” He credits Ali Farka Toure for pushing him to start his own project. Toure’s son Vieux Farka Toure guests on “I Speak Fula,” as do Diabate and other Malian artists.

On the American side Kouyate has been a close friend of bluesman Taj Mahal since meeting him at a banjo festival in Tennessee in 1990. And for the first six weeks of the current tour, Ngoni Ba shared a bill and the stage with banjo star Bela Fleck.

Bringing the ngoni to Fleck’s following was a natural fit, says Jon Kertzer, the Seattle radio host who runs the new Sub Pop imprint, Next Ambiance. “They were reaching the jam-band, roots music audience and people were flipping out seeing them for the first time.”

It may seem odd that the label that broke Seattle grunge is investing in African roots. But this is not the only such venture by American indie labels: Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records, for instance, releases Kenyan-US band Extra Golden, and New York’s Knitting Factory Records recently purchased the Fela Kuti catalog.

Kertzer says indie cred is a way to open doors for the band. “They’re getting listened to in places that wouldn’t have given them the time of day,” he says, including radio stations, blogs and other media – along with the traditional world music outlets.

But the ngoni’s revival is Kouyate’s biggest reward of all. His sons play the instrument and so do a growing number of students at the school he runs.

The success of Ngoni Ba is vindication that the ngoni was worth preserving. “We have played this instrument since before the time of Christ,” Kouyate says. “We couldn’t just drop it like that.”