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Linking Young Minds Together
     Volume 2 Issue 119 | May 17, 2009|


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Sounds and Rhythm

Ngoni- An African Harp

Nazia Ahmed

AFRICA and music are integrally entwined, through time and throughout the continent, in our perceptions of Africa. From birth until death, music complements African life. Musicians and their instruments were depicted in the pharaohs' tombs of ancient Egypt. They can set the character of a masquerade performance, rousing the spirits to appear. The sound of the historian's chant, the Islamic call to prayer and the hunter's whistle literally add other notes. Some performances are solos; some are part of an ensemble. Some musicians are professional; some are amateurs. The musical instrument varies in size,
materials and degree of ornamentation.

Ngoni is the Bambara name for an ancient traditional lute found throughout West Africa. Though typically a small instrument, the ngoni has a big sound as well as a big place in the history of West African music. Its body is a hollowed-out, canoe-shaped piece of wood with dried animal skin stretched over it like a drum. The neck is a fretless length of doweling that inserts into the body.

Musicologists classify the ngoni as an "internal spike lute." The ngoni's strings (which are made of thin fishing line like the kora) are lashed to the neck with movable strips of leather, and then fed over a fan-shaped bridge at the far end of the body. The string closest to the player actually produces the highest pitch, and the player plucks it with his thumb, just like a 5-string banjo. This feature, coupled with the fact that the body of a ngoni is a drum rather than a box, provides strong evidence that the ngoni is the African ancestor of the banjo.

Instruments of this general construction can be found from Morocco to Nigeria, and everywhere in between. In the hands of a skilled griot instrumentalist, the ngoni can produce crisp, rapid melodies, loaded with cross-rhythms and chromatic nuance. A classic ngoni player was the late Banzumana Sissoko. For Malians in particular, this instrument is deeply tied to their sense of history and identity.

In recent years, some great young instrumentalists have developed the ngonis technical range. Perhaps the foremost ngoni modernizer in Mali is Basekou Kouyate of Segou. Basekou's father played the large ngoni, like Banzumana. But like most of the current generation, Basekou gravitated towards the small, high-pitched version of the instrument. Basekou plays in an instrumental Manding music power trio with Toumani Diabate (kora) and Keletigui Diabate (balaphone). All of these players are modernizers who bring in Western and other influences into their music. Since the ngoni remains the most popular traditional string instrument in Mali, there are many other great young players who have made places for themselves within the griot tradition. Among the most sought-after ngoni players these days are Sayan Sissoko, Mama Sissoko and Moriba Koita.

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