The ngoni is a variety of West African lute that is thought to have preceded other traditional melodic instruments of Western Africa such as the kora and the balafon. The ngoni has been most commonly practiced by griots since Moroccan explorer Ibn Batutta discovered it in the 14th century, and it may have been practiced even before this point. The term “griot” refers to the collective group of scholarly musicians/historians/praise-singers in West Africa that is divided according to ethnic group, therefore using its own dialect or language, history, and musical styles (Charry).
The archetypal griot of the 20th century, Banzumana Sissoko, also happened to play the ngoni – an ancestor of the banjo. Sissoko demonstrated how skilled musicians like griots could produce crisp, rapid melodies with the instrument. There are several different types of ngoni, usually with the size of the instrument correlating to the tone. While some griots use ngonis for melodic music, others play the deep-sounding ngoni solo to accompany storytelling or singing (Charry).
More recently though, traditional instruments like the ngoni have been used in a more modern way. It has been combined with Western instruments such as acoustic, electric and bass guitars in popular music settings like nightclubs. For example, Zoumana Diarra, a guitarist/ngoni player from Mali, performs both traditional and original music with acoustic and electric guitars as well as piano. Additionally, talented instrumentalists like Modibo Kouyate – husband of Malian recording artist Tata Bambo Kouyate – have learned to play the acoustic guitar with the sounds and styles of the ngoni and the kora (Charry).
The ngoni is also combined with other traditional instruments such as the kora, the djembe drum and the bolon to play modern, more commercial music (Charry). Perhaps the best and most popular example of an artist who uses traditional instruments to make modern music is Bassekou Kouyate, who you can watch on YouTube performing at the 2007 Roskilde festival in Denmark.
Mah Soumano, pictured above, is a perhaps self-proclaimed “griot diva” from Mali, who sings in the video for her song, “Galeya,” here. Whether she is an actual griot musician or just a vocalist who practices styles of griot singing and music, she uses the ngoni and other traditional lutes in this song.
There are also traces of the ngoni in the music of Djenkadi, a group of griot musicians from Burkina Faso. The group is said to have
“one foot in traditional music, and the other in the night club, combining the traditional sounds of djembe (hand drum), balafon (wooden xylophone), ngoni and kora (gourd harps), flute, calabash (gourd drum), dundun and talking drum, with an electronic back beat, bass, saxophone, vocal harmonies, and rap (in one song)” (cdbaby.com).
See the video for Djenkadi’s title track, “Tounga,” here.