Bassekou Kouyate is one of Mali's masters of the ngoni, a traditional West African stringed instrument. Kouyate grew up in a remote village in southern Mali, and he enjoyed a truly traditional music education: His mother was a praise singer, and his father and brothers all played ngoni. Kouyate learned primarily the pentatonic Bambara music, which some consider the closest cousin to American blues. In the 1980s, Kouyate moved to Bamako and quickly hooked up with kora master Toumani Diabate, playing on several albums with Diabate and participating in Kulanjan, his collaboration with Taj Mahal. At the same time, Kouyate was changing the rules about what it meant to be an ngoni player. Traditionally a background instrument, the ngoni has transformed under Kouyate's fingers. He began taking solos center stage and inventing new ways of picking and bending notes. He's widely credited with making the instrument relevant, and his quartet, Ngoni Ba, has only furthered this process. Their debut, Segu Blue, earned them international attention; in 2009 they signed with Sub Pop's imprint Next Ambiance, and in early 2010 they released I Speak Fula.