In Conversation with ... Bassekou Kouyate

On Friday, November 4, Mali-based ngoni virtuouso Bassekou Kouyate will take the Gartner Auditorium stage as part of the museum’s VIVA! & Gala Performing Arts series. We recently spoke with Bassekou Kouyate about the ngoni’s place in Malian culture and about his sources of musical inspiration. Q. What makes the ngoni such a special instrument? A. That is a big question. Well, it is the oldest string instrument in Mali. The kora has only been with us for 200 years. The ngoni was already around in the 1300s, at the time of [historic Malian emperor] Sundjata Keita. It has witnessed all of Malian history and it is still a strong part of it. Ten years ago people thought the ngoni was a dying instrument, but now with our success suddenly even young people are starting to play it again, and they all come to my house to learn it. That is really great. Q. How did you learn to play the ngoni? Who taught you to play? A. My father taught me to play back in Garana [Kouyate’s hometown in Mali]. He was a great ngoni player but never wanted to be recorded himself. Actually, I wasn’t a good student; I always ran off to play football. But playing was always easy for me. So when I came back from playing with my friends I just picked up the instrument and played what the other students had been practicing. Q. What does the instrument mean in Malian culture? In what cultural situations is it played? A. The ngoni is at the heart of Malian culture. All the history of West Africa happened in front of a ngoni. All the kings had griots [storytellers] who talked for them and negotiated and wrote songs about what happened. Even today nobody can marry without consulting his griot. All the history is in our songs; even today the president calls me when he visits other countries and we come and play our music and tell the history. Q. How are you and your band giving this traditional instrument a new fresh sound? A. We have created this four-ngoni band to present this wonderful instrument to the world and show how much one can do with it. The bass ngoni we invented just for this band. But the music we play is traditional. We have also added some strings to the ngoni to make it more flexible harmonically. My grandfather used to play with three strings, my dad used four, and I use up to seven strings on my ngoni. Q. Why did you decide to start playing the ngoni standing up with a strap on your shoulder instead in the traditional manner of sitting down? A. We once performed at the Hotel Buffet de la Gare. Many well known musicians were playing in the band. When the guitar players played their solos they stood up and walked to the middle of the stage. The ngoni players always had to remain seated. So before the concert I decided to change that this time. When it was my turn I stood up and played, and the people couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Afterwards there were discussions [about] if this is traditionally allowed. But soon everyone was doing it, and the ngoni could finally also shine on stage. Q. What has inspired some of your most recent ngoni compositions? A. We always try out new songs and melodies. Back home, actually, when I have some little idea I sit in my courtyard and just play a little. If I see the little kids starting to dance or hum along I know I’ve got something I should work on. Q. What do you hope to accomplish by sharing your music during this new American tour? A. For us it is nice to meet people—often other musicians. It is a great experience and we are privileged to be here. We feel a great responsibility because we are presenting the music of our country. Also our African brothers and sisters we meet—it makes them happy to hear us. Hear Bassekou Kouyate and his band perform live in the museum on Friday, November 4 at 7:30 p.m. Visit our website for more details or to purchase tickets. -- Kesha Williams


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