Balla Kouyaté & Famoro Dioubaté

balafon masters
Boston, Massachusetts, and New York, New York

Photos: Brendan Mercure/courtesy of artist

Photos: Brendan Mercure/courtesy of artist

Two masters of the West African balafon, Balla Kouyaté from Mali and Famoro Dioubaté from Guinea, have joined forces to showcase their approaches, both deeply traditional and yet modern and inventive, to this ancient instrument. Each performance from Kouyaté and Dioubaté is a treat for audiences and artists alike, full of the thrill of the unexpected, as these two artists at the peak of their powers explore new musical terrain together.

The balafon is the African predecessor of the vibraphone and xylophone, with roots stretching back over 1,000 years. A balafon player uses mallets to strike wooden slats that act as keys, while rows of calabash gourds hanging beneath the instrument serve as acoustic amplifiers. Balafons of varying shapes, sizes, and tunings are prominent in several different regions and ethnic groups across West Africa.

Kouyaté has recently been named a 2019 NEA National Heritage Fellow, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. He is part of an unbroken 800-year lineage of djelis, more commonly known as griots, who are responsible for preserving the oral history and musical traditions of the Mandé and Malinké people. Said to be the original griots of the Malinké people, the Kouyatés have been charged with protecting the original balafon since the 13th century. Today, the “Sosso-Bala,” as it is called, is still maintained—in its own house—by the Kouyaté family in Balla’s father’s village on the Mali-Guinea border. Learning from his father at the age of six, Kouyaté went on to play for farmers and presidents alike before immigrating to the United States in 2000. Since arriving, he has provided West African immigrant communities with an important connection to home through performances at weddings and special events. Kouyaté has also brought the balafon to new audiences both as a teacher and through collaborations with classical and jazz masters, among others. He appears on recordings by Yo-Yo Ma, the Silk Road Ensemble, and Angelique Kidjo, and joined fellow National Heritage Fellow Sidiki Conde for a residency at Carnegie Hall.

Like Kouyaté, Famoro Dioubaté is a guardian of traditions dating back to the 13th century in the ancient Mandé Empire. Hailing from Kankan, in the heart of the Mandé region of northeastern Guinea, Dioubaté was born into a griot family. He is a grandson of the Djeli Sory Kouyaté, a living legend of the Manding balafon, one of the most renowned musicians in Guinea, and the leader of the National Instrumental Ensemble of Guinea during the 1960s and ’70s. Like his grandfather, Famoro Dioubaté is a master of the balafon. Having learned the instrument and the djeli tradition at the feet of elders in his family, Dioubaté has since made a name for himself performing with contemporary musical ensembles and artists from Guinea and Mali, including Sekouba Bambino Diabaté, Mory Kanté, and Sekouba Kandia Kouyaté. He has participated in artist residencies in France and, since coming to New York City in 1999, at the Juilliard School.

For years, Kouyaté and Dioubaté have performed together at weddings and other traditional ceremonies in West African immigrant communities in New York City and the surrounding region. Now they are expanding their collaboration by taking the distinctive, beautiful, and intricate melodies of their music and layering it over driving percussion played on calabash (gourd durm) and djembe. Starting from their shared foundation in traditional Mandean music, Kouyaté and Dioubaté are exploring the new heights they can reach when musical friendship, creative vision, and virtuosity meet.