Bela Fleck, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, John Kitime & Anania Ngoglia | Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music | International | Chicago Reader

Bela Fleck, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, John Kitime & Anania Ngoglia All Ages Early Warnings (Music) Soundboard Recommended Critics' Picks

When: Sun., Feb. 21, 5 & 8 p.m. 2010

Banjo master Bela Fleck is a man possessed by a great musical curiosity, and in 2005 it took him to Africa, the ancestral homeland of his chosen instrument. His multifarious collaborations with musicians from countries as disparate as South Africa, Mali, and Tanzania—including some of the continent's greatest talents—are chronicled in a feature-length documentary called Throw Down Your Heart and a more recent companion CD of the same name, released by Rounder. The brilliance of giants like Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate, Vusi Mahlasela, and Hukwe Zawose is so well documented already that the album doesn't reveal any new facets of their artistry, but what does shine through is Fleck's nonchalant flexibility, which allows him to fit into groups of widely varying sizes and styles—and the banjo likewise meshes easily with African instruments, making a persuasive case for its African roots. Fleck is promoting the project with this tour, but I expect he'll be upstaged by one of his collaborators: Malian ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate, who's bringing his killer band, Ngoni Ba. A brittle-sounding plucked lute, the ngoni is clearly a predecessor of the banjo, and Ngoni Ba is basically Kouyate and three other musicians playing ngonis in different sizes and pitches, joined by a powerful singer (Kouyate's wife, Amy Sacko) and sometimes percussionists. The band's excellent second album, I Speak Fula, recently released by Sub Pop's new Next Ambiance imprint, features guest spots from heavy hitters like Toumani Diabate, Vieux Farka Toure, and Kasse Mady Diabate, but even unassisted Ngoni Ba delivers an amazingly rich, full-bodied sound, tapping into Mande fundamentals with a radical combination of traditional instruments. Fleck and Ngoni Ba will be joined by three more collaborators from Throw Down Your Heart: guitarist John Kitime and blind singer and thumb piano player Anania Ngoglia, both from Tanzania, and Nashville-based fiddler Casey Driessen. The musicians will take the stage in many combinations—Fleck solo, duets between Fleck and Kouyate, duets between Kitime and Ngoglia—and everybody will play together at the end. —Peter Margasak

Price: $45, $43 members, $41 seniors and children

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