Fascinating day in Studio G as I was producing an underwriting spot for Grand Performances featuring Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba. Came across an instrument that I haven't heard in years, the ngoni.
Ngoni is the Bambara name for an ancient traditional lute found throughout West Africa. Though typically a small instrument the ngoni has a big sound and a big place in the history of West African music. Its body is a hollowed-out, canoe-shaped piece of wood with dried animal skin stretched over it like a drum. The neck is a fretless length of doweling that inserts into the body, which unlike the kora (whose neck goes totally through its calabash resonator) stops short of coming out the base of the instrument. For this reason musicologists classify the ngoni as a "internal spike lute." The ngoni's strings (which are made of thin fishing line like the kora) are lashed to the neck with movable strips of leather, and then fed over a fan-shaped bridge at the far end of the body. The string closest to the player actually produces the highest pitch, and the player plucks it with his thumb, just like a 5-string banjo. This feature, coupled with the fact that the ngoni's body is a drum rather than a box, provides strong evidence that the ngoni is the African ancestor of the banjo.
Bassekou Koyate has transformed the traditional music of the ngoni into the modern world of today. With his band ngoni ba he has created a new lineup as a quartet with a band's style of playing. The ngonis they play are still acoustic as in the old days, but Bassekou invented a bass ngoni even lower in pitch than the ngoni ba (low ngoni), and added extra strings to make their instruments harmonically more flexible. In the process Bassekou opened up the magic of an age-old music that he and his band have been playing for their entire lives, to people all over the world. Bassekou Kouyate has now become the ambassador of the ngoni. He has brought this ancient instrument back to where it used to be: to the center of Malian music.