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Hitting The Rhythm Stick

It may be the granddaddy of all West African stringed instruments, but recently the ngoni’s taken a back seat. “Bassekou is one of the two musicians who has developed the ngoni technique and kept it alive,” notes Lucy, “because I think it’s an instrument that could have easily just disappeared.” The other keeper of the ngoni flame is Moriba Koita. “He’s been living in Paris for about 20 years now, but he was one of the people who accompanied the women singers. He didn’t really modernise things in the way that Bassekou does, but he was an important musician who kept the instrument visible and was a big influence on Bassekou.”

Bassekou first started to play the ngoni when he was 12. This was an inevitability as he comes from an ngoni-playing griot family, where the instrument is passed down from father to son (Bassekou’s children now play as well). “Kouyates are the original griots,” Bassekou states. “All other griots, the Diabates etc., came along way, way after. My ancestor Jali Musa Wulen [Red Jali Musa] lived in the time of the Ghana Empire in the 10th century. He began playing the ngoni when he heard a djinn (water spirit) playing it by the river Niger one day. The tune that the djinn was playing was called A Side Of The Branch Of The River and we have included a version of it on the album as The River Tune. My ancestor fell in love with the instrument and asked the djinn what it was. The djinn said ‘Here, you can have it’, and so he took the tune as well as the instrument!”

“At the time of the last pre-colonial empire,” explains Lucy, going into ethno-historical mode and moving forward a number of centuries, “the country was at war with the French colonials and a lot of the fighting was centred around what’s now the border between Guinea and Mali, which is where Bassekou’s grandfather, who was also called Jali Musa Kouyate, lived. So he left to avoid the fighting, because griots don’t really fight, they only fight with words or with the ngoni.”

“He left and went eastwards,” says Bassekou, taking up the story. “He moved to the region now known as Segu and my family ultimately settled in a village called Garana.” It was here that Bassekou was born and judging by the photos in the CD booklet, it’s a lovely place, about 60 kilometres west of Segu. “My father, Mustapha, installed himself there,” explains Bassekou, “because there was a great marabout (holy man) there called Cheikh Abba and he became our family’s patron.”


fRom fRoots 287, May 2007

 

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