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Hitting The Rhythm Stick

Following his adventures in Banjoland, Bassekou returned to Bamako and continued to play on the local scene. He also continued to work with Toumani, appearing on the Songhai 2 album recorded in Spain with flamenco group Ketama, the wonderful Kulanjan project with Toumani and Taj, and the two CDs by Toumani’s Symmetric Orchestra, with whom he toured internationally last year. Then there’s his involvement with Clan Farka Toure. “I’ve known Ali for a long time. One day he took my hand and said ‘This that you have here is magic, it’s like a black diamond. It’s time that you did your own project.’ He even called Nick Gold and told him that it was time for Nick to produce my album, but I’m just an easy-going guy. I prefer to get on with people and therefore would rather just be a part of other people’s projects than do my own thing.”

The call from Nick Gold finally came last year, although it was to invite Bassekou to appear on Ali’s final, posthumously released album Savane (World Circuit). And you get a lot of Bassekou’s ngoni playing on the album, Ali apparently referred to the group featured on the CD as “The ngoni band” and Bassekou’s hope is that this will open up people’s ears to the possibilities of the instrument. He also contributed to three tracks on the acclaimed self-titled debut album from Ali’s son Vieux Farka Toure (World Village), including a poignant pair of tunes featuring both father and son, recorded before Ali’s death.

But Bassekou hasn’t always just been a backing musician. In 2000 he formed his own group Samagera (named after one of the praise names for the Kouyates), a more conventional line-up than Ngoni Ba; with balafon, djembe and vocals (the latter provided by Kasse Mady Diabate), they played Maninka rather than Bamana music. It’s only with Ngoni Ba that he’s started to play music from his own tradition. “Maninka music has seven notes,” says Bassekou, explaining the difference between the two, “whereas Bamana music is pentatonic. There are different rhythms, different drums, different styles of dancing. Maninka music is much faster and better for dancing to, Bamana music works better for musique d’ambiance, more for listening. It’s village music. If you go to Garana, you’ll find my brother sitting under a tree with his battery-powered amp, playing his ngoni all day long. It’s the sound of that village.”

The idea of the Ngoni Ba project came about a mere 18 months ago, when Lucy was doing research for a report that she was writing on Bamana music and struggling with the fact that it’s something of a lost art-form in modern Mali. Bassekou kindly offered to help out. “The real sound of Bamana music is the ngoni,” he states, “so to recreate it, I called my brother and my nephew and other ngoni players in my family, just to see if it would even work, to see if we could have a band that was just made up of ngonis. The true instrument of the Bamana is the big bass ngoni, and I wanted to see if it was possible to create a group without an electric bass, because every single band has an electric bass now and I’m bored with it. I wanted to show what the ngoni can do and so we tried to adapt the way of playing of the bass ngoni, to see if it could be played like a bass guitar. The idea was to create something like the guitar trio line-up of solo guitar, rhythm guitar and bass guitar. So we’ve got the little high-pitched ngoni that I play, which does the lead, the bass ngoni that’s played by my brother Andra (who has also played in Rokia Traore’s group), which provides the bass and then the medium-sized ngoni playing rhythm.”

fRom fRoots 287, May 2007


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