Ngoni Ba? I thought. He has a sidekick named Ngoni Ba?
The ngoni is an instrument, the ngoni bâ is the deeper version of the instrument, and at first I looked at that title as if someone had offered me an album credited to Bassekou Kouyaté and Bongo Drums, or Bassekou Kouyaté and Grand Piano. It was a while before I found out that Ngoni Ba is the name of the whole group. They all play ngoni. We are told that this is Mali’s first ngoni quartet and that Kouyaté is one of the instrument’s great modernizers. He comes with a pedigree. Those ngoni who were on Ali Farka Touré‘s final album? He was one of them. Look at the middle of the Savane booklet and there he is, wearing a hat with a wide brim. What about Toumani Diabaté‘s Symmetric Orchestra? He was in that too. In fact he’s known Diabaté since the 1980s. His wife is a professional singer. This is a man who arrives clothed in expectations.
The most appealing description of a ngoni that I’ve read comes from an Amazon poster named McZakka who was reviewing Segu Blue. The instrument, he wrote, “looks like a stocky cricket bat.” I read that, then looked at the front cover of the album and laughed. He’s right, the ngoni there look like big yellow nerf bats, the kind you might give to a child at the beach. Kouyaté‘s own instrument looks slimmer. “[A] simple desert lute,” McZakka adds, but the ngoni doesn’t sound like a lute. It has a deeper, meditative sound, hardish but not unpleasant. This is a soft-edged hardness, like an asphalt road with clay verges. On this album the ngoni makes a meditative sound, as if the notes are tumbling down into the open air with nothing to stop them falling.
Segu Blue would suit someone who likes either Diabaté or Touré or both. There are elements of both of them in Kouyaté‘s style. The ngoni‘s meditations put it in the same emotional family as Diabaté‘s kora but the songs have Touré‘s blues strum. The difference between Touré and Kouyaté lies in Kouyaté‘s willingness to have fun. Touré‘s music was often serious. He didn’t sound like the sort of man you’d kick around with for a chuckle. Kouyaté does. He doesn’t do it all the time, but he does it often enough. In “Ngoni Fola” he gets a group of people clapping in time behind the strings at the beginning and it’s as if we’re jumping into a kindergarten chant or a musical, that sense of anticipation as you enter a song. This is going to get exciting, it suggests. In comes something that sounds like a banjo. The ngoni is assumed to be the banjo’s African ancestor, and once you know that, this short intervention comes off like a grin and a wink. The musicians, and us know something in common.
In “Bassekou” the watery pling of the ngoni rocks to a steady beat, not stated outright, but lying under everything, kicking the song along. The percussion sounds like someone clicking his or her tongue. It’s a human sound, a body sound, acoustic, and tactile. Then there is a sound similar to an orutu fiddle, a citron sound, sharp as a lime. The four ngoni bounce swiftly and closely together, now a quick babble, now a trot. All the skill of Kouyaté‘s long career is in there, popping quickly off his fingers.
Comparisons between this and blues are easy to make. Shift “Mbowdi” lower and slower, remove the chorus of women, take away all of the musicians except one, make the singer tell you in English about a woman who done him wrong, and you’d be in the US. But there are differences, and anyone who bought this expecting to find nothing but a proto-blues album would come away disappointed. In a track like “The River Tune” the difference is distinct. The bluesy chug is there but now it is delicate, it is not expressing human emotions but those of a constantly changing environment, which are less despairing, more contemplative. The male singers have a husky lightness, not the grinding blues mouthful-of-mud. “Andra’s Song” is something Kandia Kouyaté might have put her voice to. This is Malian new-roots done with style and fidelity. If Kouyaté is trying to turn himself into the Diabaté of the ngoni, an innovator who takes ancient instruments and tunes and moves them forward, then he’s going about it in the right way. This album is excellent.