Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Ngoni

Unusual and exotic stringed instruments just absolutely fascinate me. Being a guitarist, I'm endlessly fascinated how stringed instruments can be built differently, can sound differently and can be played in different styles. I discovered this one, the Ngoni, through the latest album by Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba. The album is called "Jama Ko" and it is an amazing piece of music, not least for the way Bassekou incorporates western playing techniques and signal processing on his instrument.

According to Wikipedia, the Ngoni is thought to be an ancient ancestor to the Banjo once the African slave trade began. It is an interestingly built instrument, built similarly to a guitar or a banjo, however the body is made from the shell of the fruit of a calabash plant, or from wood and is covered in dried goat skin. It has a long fretless fingerboard and can contain anywhere from 6 to 12 strings. It is commonly found in West African countries such as Ghana and Mali.

When electricified, it has an unusual timbre. Twangy, yet somewhat deeper, but not unlike an Asian instrument such as a koto. Being fretless, it can produce unusually pitched notes and some unusual sounding bends when the strings are struck and pushed up against the fretboard. With the strings being lower to the body, the speed at which a virtuoso can play these instruments is lightning fast and it is fascinating to listen to. Couple that with solid and eminently danceable rhythmic backdrop, and you have some seriously fun music.

Below is an amateur film clip of Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba filmed at this years WOMADelaide festival. The first half of this is two Ngoni players trading solos before they go into some synchronised moves that put Status Quo to shame. The rhythm is insistent, so if you feel compelled to dance (how could one not?) go right ahead. Around 1:19, Bassekou filters his Ngoni through a cry-baby wah wah pedal.

It's joyous and fun music, and it looks like both band and audience during this set had a ball.


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