A New Kind of Guitar Hero

Sub Pop launches new world music label with ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba.

By Laura Dannen July 21, 2010

Bassekou Kouyate

(Originally published March 9, 2010.) New Sub Pop artist Bassekou Kouyate has found a way to redefine “roots music” in Seattle. Backed by his all-acoustic “guitar band,” Ngoni Ba, Kouyate plays a contemporary version of his native Mali’s traditional music on his ngoni —a 1,000-year-old ancestor of the banjo. The sound so closely resembles American blues, Kouyate has drawn the attention of artists Taj Mahal and Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and Bela Fleck. He’s considered a virtuoso in West Africa—where he comes from a family of ngoni players—and after 20 years of picking and strumming around the world, he’s about to make his mark here with his first US tour. It’s about time Kouyate and Ngoni Ba crossed our radar, says KEXP DJ Jon Kertzer, who signed them to Sub Pop’s new world music label, Next Ambiance, which he’s co-managing.

“[Bassekou’s had] a tremendous response in Europe, but were never really released over here. Then at the 2007 WOMEX [World Music Expo] in England he really broke through in a big way and became a star in the world music scene there,” says Kertzer. He had “discovered” Kouyate through Lucy Duran, a friend and BBC radio host in London, and after hearing Kouyate and Ngoni Ba’s second release in March, I Speak Fula, he talked to Duran about getting them some local exposure.

“I thought wow, this is an incredible live band. I knew he was a great musician, but this is a whole new concept. … What he’s done is a kind of modernization of the music. Like, he invented the bass version of the instrument that’s never been played before—he built it. Using a rock band as a model, he created a full band of ngonis. It’s like a guitar band but with ngonis.” Four ngonis, to be exact, with wife Amy Sacko lending lead vocals. “It’s all acoustic and traditional instruments, but it’s very high energy. Some of it’s dance music, some of it’s not, but it’s all exciting stuff to watch.”

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba kicked off their US headlining tour at the Triple Door on March 16. They return to Seattle tomorrow night, July 22, to play Neumos. Doors open at 9; tickets are $17-$20. Get tickets here.

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