Mali's Bassekou Kouyate isn't content to play background music, so he attached a guitar strap to his ngoni, or "spike lute" the banjo's distant cousin and proudly solos center stage with his talented ensemble, Ngoni Ba. The bandleader is determined to modernize traditional songcraft, enlisting young Malian blues guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and kora master Toumani Diabaté for I Speak Fula, his new Next Ambiance-Sub Pop release. Kouyates signing to the stalwart indie-rock label signals America's continued strong interest in African music, from Fela Kuti reissues to Afropop-influenced groups like Vampire Weekend. But Kouyate was a major star back home long before the West took notice. His '07 release Segu Blue (Out Here) was one of that year's finest in any genre, buoyed by sparse, delicate songs that conjured his life in rural Garana, a village near the Niger River. Fula contains gentle, contemplative numbers and cascading rhythmic pieces that combine the band's four ngoni players' virtuoso picking. Kouyate has toured with late Mali great Ali Farka Touré and jammed with Bela Fleck and Bonnie Raitt. He is also championed by Taj Mahal, who finds common ground with his evocative string work. Expect Kouyate's band, joined by his wife, Amy Sacko, to swing sweetly on quieter compositions from Fula like "Moustapha" and rock out on upbeat songs like "Musow for Our Women."