The West African lute called the ngoni—its body built either from wood or calabash, over which animal skin is stretched—is a precursor to the banjo that’s been around for nearly seven centuries, but no single musician in modern times has introduced its infectious twang to more listeners that the Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate. Born into a family of griots in 1966, he began playing the instrument as a teenager and moved to the country’s capital of Bamako in the late 1980s, where he quickly became enmeshed in the local scene. He became a founding member of the spectacular Symmetric Orchestra assembled by kora master Toumani Diabate. By the early 1990s he was touring in Europe and building connections, and in 2005 he began working with the legendary guitarist Ali Farka Touré, performing on his final album Savane. That same year, Kouyate formed his group Ngoni Ba, which released its first album in 2007.
From the start Kouyate distinguished the group by placing an unusual focus on the ngoni, enlisting three other players of the instrument to join the band. Thanks to his deft arrangements, a judicious embrace of effects pedals and amplification, and the use of different-sized iterations of the instrument—including a bass ngoni—his group generated a rich lattice of sound, full of brittle yet sweet-toned arpeggios, with the leader’s wife Amy Sacko serving as the primary vocalist. As Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times of his bedrock sound, “The music remains unmistakably West African in its minor modes, its vocal lines, its rhythms (often three against two) and the breakneck lines and fluttering trills of traditional accompaniments. But instrumental showcases have taken over the songs, and Mr. Kouyate ignores stylistic boundaries.”
Over the years the group has recorded steadily. In the spring of 2012, an effort to make a new album in Bamako was interrupted by a military coup, and attacks by Islamic terrorists led the band to decamp to Montreal where they recorded Jama Ko with Arcade Fire producer Howard Bilerman, rejiggering the band’s sound.