I remember how surprised I was when I found out that the banjo had come to North America with African slaves. I had associated it for so long with both Country and Bluegrass music that it was hard to believe it had ever been used for other types of music. Of course the instrument has evolved from its original form, and along with its physical modifications the role it played in music changed. Initially a percussion instrument, a role it can still play, the addition of the fifth string changed it into the lead instrument we are familiar with today.
But since finding out that it had come from Africa, I had been curious as to its origins. Africa is a huge continent after all, and there is no more a single African culture then there is a single European culture, so which of the many musical traditions spawned the banjo? I don't know if there is any definitive answer as the slaves came from all over the continent and would have formed something of a melting pot of traditions amongst themselves. What we call a banjo could have been the result of combining a few different instruments into one body.
One possible source of inspiration for the banjo is an instrument from the West African country of Mali called the ngoni. This is the Bambara name given an ancient traditional five stringed, lute like instrument found throughout the region, which is plucked with the thumb like the banjo. It's a deceptively simple looking instrument; a single piece of wood shaped something like a cricket bat's paddle with a length of round dowelling serving as a neck. The five strings run from a bridge near the fat end of the paddle and run up the to the end of the dowel where they appear to be simply tied off.
Bassekou Kouyate is one of the premier ngoni players in Mali, and earlier this year he and his band Ngoni Ba (The Big Ngoni) released their first album Segu Blue. Released on the Out/Here label from Great Britain it is just now being distributed by Forced Exposure in North America.
Bassekou Kouyate was raised in a family of traditional musicians, with his mother being a praise singer and his father and brothers exceptional ngoni players. He left home at nineteen and started his own musical career by collaborating with other young African players. He first came to international attention when he was part of Taj Mahal's Kulanjan project, the esteemed Blues player's project that explored the African roots of American Blues. In fact Taj Mahal was so taken with the Bassekou Kouyate's playing he described him as "a living proof that the Blues comes from the region of Segu".
According to the notes that accompanied the review copy I was sent, the music played by Bassekou and his band is from the region of Segu (hence the CD's title) which is the centre of Bambara culture. The notes go on to say that unlike other types of traditional music Bambara is pentatonic in nature – having five distinct tones – making it as close to our Blues music as you're going to get from traditional African sources.
Okay so that's what the paper says, but what does the music say? Well the music is astounding; it's almost impossible to believe that these simple looking instruments are producing the diversity of sound you hear on the CD. The members of Ngoni Ba each play a ngoni of a different size, and with just those instruments create a sound as full and rich as any produced by a band playing conventional instruments.
If it weren't for the note saying there is no djembe, (bongo type drum) or kora (another African stringed instrument) in use, you'd swear they were both being played. The sound is so elaborate that you swear you can hear those instruments being played. Perhaps the lushness of the sound is because the four musicians are playing in such close harmony that it sounds like they are part of a pattern being woven unto a loom in the manner of an elaborate rug. At first, you can't really see the picture that's being created, but gradually it begins to take shape before your eyes (or ears in this case) and what's produced in the end is as beautiful as it is mysterious.
For those of you familiar with African music you might hear echoes of other forms you recognize. I know there were times when the music sounded like the Nigerian pop sounds of King Sunny Ade, with its bright guitar and up tempo rhythm. At other times, I caught elements that reminded me of the Senegalese singer Babba Maal. But it occurred to me that I was thinking in reverse; instead of Ngoni Ba sounding like other people, they were playing the music that those other styles evolved from.
The Ngoni is one of the oldest instruments in Africa, so it follows that the music played with it would have to be of a similar pedigree. Listening to the songs on Segu Blue it was easy to forget that this music could have been what was being played long before European contact was made with the people of Africa.
It sounds so fresh, alive, and reminiscent of something heard before, that it's impossible to associate the music of Ngoni Ba with the past or to think of it as anything but contemporary. Even thinking that does it a disservice, and diminishes the talents of Bassekou Kouyate. Of the fourteen songs on Segu Blue ten are ones that he has written, and three are traditional songs that he has created the arrangements for.
Just because in a lot of cases in our culture contemporary seems to preclude the involvement of the past, doesn't mean that's the case in the rest of the world. Music can exist as stream whose current flows in a circle between the past and the present. When the past feeds the present like it does in the work of Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, traditions create new possibilities for the future.
Segu Blue contains fourteen songs that are amazing pieces of music no matter when they were written or who they written for. Prepare to be amazed by the sound and the virtuosity of the players on this CD like you haven't in a long time.
(Originally posted October 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.