For years Bassekou Kouyate was the favorite ngoni player of Malian grandmasters like Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure; the latter continuously encouraging him to find his own way and style. Kouyate gathered three other ngoni players around him, placed his wife, Amy Sacko, behind the microphone and Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba (the big ngoni, red.), Mali's first ever ngoni quartet, was born.
Bassekou, welcome in the Zuiderpershuis, but it's not really your first time here, right?
Bassekou Kouyate: "No, it's already the third or fourth time that I play here. The first time was back in 1989."
Can you start by telling us a little bit more about your instrument, the ngoni?
Bassekou Kouyate: "I really believe the ngoni is a complete and all-round instrument. It first appeared in my country (Mali, red.) in the 13th century. I stem from a griot family. My great-grandfather already played the ngoni and my children will probably play it as well. The ngoni is like the grandfather of the modern guitar and it's an excellent accompaniment instrument; you can easily combine it with guitar and piano. Sadly the instrument was held back a bit until now. I try to play it in my own unique style and I can play any musical genre you want from jazz to blues or even funk on it. My father wasn't too pleased with my experiments though, and he urged me more than once to respect the traditions, but for me it's much more important to be able to present this extraordinary instrument to crowds the world over. My grandfather still played a three-stringed ngoni, my father added a string and I'm now playing ngoni with up to eight or nine strings!"
So it's an instrument that keeps evolving then?
Bassekou Kouyate: "Yes, absolutely! I'm dreaming of opening a school in Bamako, where people from all over the world can come to learn to play the ngoni. Before we only had four chords in Mali: djelijourou, denjourou, kojourou and bajourou. I developed a way in which the ngoni can be played to a diatonic scale (a diatonic scale is a seven-note musical scale, red.). That way anyone in the world can learn how to play the instrument, because the do-re-mi system is known and used everywhere."
Do you handcraft your own instruments?
Bassekou Kouyate: "In my family we do, yes."
What are the materials you use?
Bassekou Kouyate: "We start off with a piece of wood from the geni tree. Apart from that you need a piece of cow skin and fishing-lines to make the strings out of."
Malian music has been quite popular in the West for some time now. Has that popularity changed the content of the music?
Bassekou Kouyate: "I'm very proud of Malian music - it's now being praised worldwide - but at the same time I'm part of a younger generation of Malians who want our music to keep evolving and changing, so it will continue to be interesting."
You're album is called 'Segu Blue'. The "Segu" part indicates the part of Mali you're from, Ségou. What can you tell us about that region?
Bassekou Kouyate: "Ségou is the fourth region of Mali; a region that is mostly known for its musical diversity. The musical traditions of Ségou have developed independently from those in the rest of the country and haven't been seriously exploited yet. Salif Keita plays Mandinka music and Ali Farka Toure played music from Songhaï, which is in the north of the country, but the music from Ségou hasn't been commercialized yet. With this album, I made it my mission to promote the musical traditions of my region and at the same time my instrument, the ngoni."
The second part of the title obviously refers to the blues. It's been said the roots of the blues really are to be found in Mali. What's your opinion on that?
Bassekou Kouyate: "Personally, I'm absolutely convinced the blues has its roots in Mali and if you listen to my album, you will certainly hear why. The black slaves took these musical traditions over to the United States. When you listen to the pentatonic scales we use in Ségou (A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five pitches per octave in contrast to a heptatonic or seven note scale. Pentatonic scales are very common and are found all over the world, including Celtic folk music, West African music and the American blues, red.), it's practically the same sound you can also find with American blues artists. To me "Blue" is also about the color blue, because my music has its roots on the banks of the river Niger; so blue, like the waters of the river."
The song 'Lament For Ali Farka' is a tribute to the late great Ali Farka Toure.
Bassekou Kouyate: "Ali was a genius. He liked me a lot and always pushed me to pursue my own thing. That's why I absolutely wanted to include this piece in his honor on the album. One day he just invited me unexpectedly and that day, after not more than a few minutes of rehearsals, we recorded the 'Savane' album. Through that album a lot of people got their first introduction to the sound of the ngoni."
Another Malian artist that crossed your path more than once is Toumani Diabate.
Bassekou Kouyate: "I started collaborating with Toumani in 1987. He's a true friend and we've already toured together several times and have collaborated on many records. I even played here with him on several occasions. Today our careers have taken their separate paths, but we still play together whenever possible. Toumani is a superb musician."
In conclusion, if I would ask you to name some of the reasons to visit your country, Mali, what would you reply?
Bassekou Kouyate: "Well, I'm a musician, so first and foremost I'd have to name our rich musical heritage. Mali is a very beautiful country with a very interesting cultural diversity. To give you just one example, there's the region where the Dogon people live and where you will also find Timbuktu. I'm convinced Mali is a country with huge touristic potential and I would like to invite everyone to come and discover its wonders themselves."