Béla Fleck knows a kindred spirit when he sees one. Just as he has made a career out of taking the banjo into uncharted musical territory, Mali's Bassekou Kouyate is winning fans across North America with his potent acoustic ensemble Ngoni Ba, a band designed to demonstrate the power and flexibility of his ancient West African lute.
He brings Ngoni Ba to Grand Performances on Friday night as part of a free double bill with Dengue Fever, the last leg of an extensive tour that Kouyate opened last winter with Fleck. The banjo star was already familiar with Kouyate's instrumental prowess through "Throw Down Your Heart," a track from Fleck's Grammy Award-winning album exploring the banjo's African roots, "Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions" (Rounder).
An invaluable musical ambassador, Kouyate has, over the years, collaborated with guitarist Leni Stern on her 2007 album, "Africa," and jammed with, among others, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Bono and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. And his 2009 album, "I Speak Fula," was put out in the U.S. by an unlikely source: Seattle indie rock powerhouse Sub Pop Records, which marked the debut of its subsidiary imprint, Next Ambience, with the release in 2009.
"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 a recent e-mail. "With his incredible band Ngoni Ba, and their fantastic playing and singing, he's sure to reach his goal. I've loved playing with him, and the audiences have gone crazy!"
As a griot — a West African singer/storyteller — Kouyate traces his musical lineage back to the 13th century empire founded by Sundiata Keita, a wealthy polity that encompassed a huge swath of West Africa. His ancestors entertained the royal court. Every note he plays on the ngoni embodies a tradition handed down for generations.
"The ngoni is the griot's identity," Kouyate says, speaking in French through an interpreter. "We had the ngoni in our countries before we had writing. 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."
Determined to enhance the instrument's visibility, Kouyate assembled Ngoni Ba, an eight-piece combo that combines the rollicking energy of a rock band with the emphatic call-and-response choruses of a gospel ensemble. Given that the ngoni is traditionally played while seated, Kouyate'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 "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 Kouyate's wife and creative partner, Ami Sacko.
Kouyate has not only transformed the ngoni's role in Mali through his band and collaborations with kora master Toumani Diabaté. He contributed to the late great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré's 2006 farewell album, "Savane," energized Youssou N'Dour's 2007 CD, "Rokku Mi Rokka," and played an essential role on 2009's "Fondo" by Mali's rising guitar star Vieux Farka Touré (son of Ali).
Blues troubadour Taj Mahal, a longtime champion of the African American banjo tradition, first encountered Kouyate almost 20 years ago at a banjo convention in New Lebanon, Tenn. They struck up a friendship, and Kouyate played an essential role on Mahal's acclaimed 1999 collaboration with Toumani Diabaté, "Kulanjan" (Hannibal). They jammed together in San Francisco last March over a lean blues/funk groove, and Mahal came away more impressed than ever.
"There are very few musical situations where one can come face to face with the most recent innovations and improvisations of an unbroken ancient West African griot tradition," Mahal wrote in an e-mail. "This is the banjo's ancient ancestor, which has come to re-acquaint a more 300-year-old relative with its true magnificence and power!"
Kouyate's music is helping to instill passion for traditional instruments back home. The lure of Western culture has led many aspiring young musicians from the griot caste to shun the ngoni. But Kouyate's sudden international rise has imbued the lute with an aura of coolness.
"It was fading because less and less people were playing it," he says. "Since I've been having success with two albums and this band, young people are playing the ngoni more."