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Every note that Malian master musician Bassekou Kouyate plays on the ngoni, a small four-string lute, embodies a tradition handed down for dozens of generations. As a griot, Kouyate traces his musical lineage back to the wealthy West African empire founded by Sundiata Keita in the 13th century, when his ancestors entertained the royal court. But that’s not to say Kouyate is shackled to the past. Determined to enhance the music’s visibility, he assembled Ngoni Ba, an eight-piece group combining the energy of a rock band with the emphatic call-and-response choruses of a gospel ensemble. Looking to expand the ngoni’s harmonic range, he added additional strings and introduced a powerful new sound on 2007’s Segu Blue and the Grammy-nominated I Speak Fula from 2009. Kouyate’s latest album, Jama Ko, is a plea for peace and tolerance in the face of crisis, as the album was recorded during the recent military uprising in Mali. Beyond Ngoni Ba, Kouyate has collaborated with pop luminaries U2 and Carlos Santana and played an essential role on recordings by African legends including Toumani Diabaté, Ali Farka Touré, Vieux Farka Touré and Youssou N’Dour.