The ngoni (or xalam) is said to be the most ancient of the jeli instruments: in an fRoots interview, Bassekou Kouyate, Mali’s most famous ngoni-playing jeli, states, “It is the first instrument of the griots, so ultimately the ngoni is the source of all griot melodies… Also, you cannot do any of the life cycle ceremonies (births, circumcisions, weddings and funerals) without the ngoni. You can do them without the other instruments, but you must have the ngoni. It functions like the other griot instruments, but because it is the oldest, it has the most prestige and is the most effective.” It is interesting then, that the ngoni is sometime overlooked among jeli instruments, often taking a backseat to the kora and balafon in the international market. For this reason, there are fewer famous ngoni players making it into the YouTube-&-MySpace zone. Ngoni specialists, however, are not to be ignored.
Wikipedia’s Xalam page tells us that important Senegalese ngoni/xalam jeli include “…Sàmba Jabare Sàmb, Ama Njaay Sàmb, Abdulaay Naar Sàmb (all from the Jolof), Abdulaay Soose (from the Saalum), and Bokunta Njaay (from the Bawol). The best known Malian ngoni players are Banzumana Sissoko, Bassekou Kouyate, Mama Sissoko, Moriba Koita, Sayan Sissoko, and Fuseini Kouyate.” Unfortunately, of all of these jeli, only Bassekou Kouyate has a MySpace page, and videos are few and far between on YouTube, which is indicative of the obstacles ngoni players face in popularizing their music and their instrument.
Banzumana Sissoko was one of Mali’s most famous jelis. He popularized the bass ngoni (most ngoni players now choose the higher-pitched ngoni) on the radio up until his death in 1987. It seems only fitting that the grandfather of ngoni is related to the biggest up-and-comer of the new ngoni generation: Bassekou Kouyate.
Bassekou Kouyate is the current king of ngoni. He is bringing his craft into the public light in a huge way. Besides playing with Taj Mahal at the Tennessee Banjo Festival, he has collaborated with many of the big names in African music, like Ali (and Vieux) Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate, and his own wife, Malian vocalist Ami Sacko, often termed the Tina Turner of Malian music. Kouyate recently revolutionized the ngoni world by creating a ngoni ensemble called Ngoni Ba (“big ngoni”), which consists of four ngoni of different ranges. Before Ngoni Ba, the ngoni tended to be used mostly in ensembles with balafon and kora. Ngoni Ba is an ngoni-based group, supplemented by two percussion pieces and vocals from Ami Sacko. The group’s recent debut CD, “Segu Blue,” was voted Album of the Year at the 2008 BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba are getting lots of attention now, and with good reason.
Some good videos of Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba:
Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba (with Ami Sacko singing)
While Bassekou Kouyate is far and away the most famous contemporary ngoni player, others are doing quite well also:
And while much digital attention is given to Malian artists, the Senegalese are no less involved in the ngoni tradition:
Video of an ngoni/balafon collaboration (Guinean Famoro Dioubate on balafon and Senegalese Mamadou Djeng on ngoni)
In short, there are many incredible ngoni players, and with the continuing adaptation of the style, ngoni players may soon occupy the place they deserve among African musicians.
-posted by Allison J. Dickinson