Many performers come from a family of musicians; yet, few can claim a musical legacy as distinguished as Balla Kouyaté. The balafon player, who hails from Mali but now resides outside of Boston, is the heir to an 800-year-old musical tradition that was originally bestowed upon his family to steward and protect by a king, and has been subsequently handed down from father to son for centuries.
“It is an ancient family music and I do feel a lot of pressure in a way because today you can’t talk about the history of the balafon without talking about my family,” Balla says.
The balafon is a West African instrument that is considered the predecessor of the vibraphone and xylophone. It is made from wooden slats that are struck by mallets and act as keys. Calabash gourds hang beneath the slats and serve as resonators. Balla is one of the foremost balafonists in the United States, and widely respected in Mali, as well as West Africa more generally, as part of an unbroken line of djelis; more commonly known as griots, djelis are oral historians and praise singers. In 2019, Balla was honored as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor a folk and traditional artist can receive in the U.S. When he performs at the Richmond Folk Festival in October, he’ll play alongside Famoro Dioubaté in a collaboration they are premiering for public audiences this fall. Originally from Guinea, Dioubaté is another highly regarded balafon player who is now based in the U.S.
Balla reached these heights from modest beginnings, learning from family members in his home village. In agricultural communities in Mali and throughout West Africa, music is a part of day-to-day life, played not just for entertainment but to encourage workers and set a rhythm for work in the fields.
“My father taught me to play, but I also learned from my brothers,” Balla explains. “We don’t use the word ‘cousins’ much; we say ‘brothers and sisters.’ So I learned a lot of music from my brothers and my uncles.”
Balla grew up playing the balafon alongside his mother in the fields as the workers harvested crops.
“Of course I went to school but every day after school, all the other activity was playing balafon,” he says. “It is mostly a male instrument–an instrument for men to play. The women’s instrument is a type of bells you wear on your fingers. So I played the balafon and my mother would play these bells and she would sing.”
Balla’s family is not only responsible for carrying on djeli oral and musical tradition; they also safeguard the original balafon. Named the Sosso Bala, it is about 1,000 years old and is kept by Balla’s father, El Hadji Sekou Kouyaté, who is titled the Bala Tigui.
“The Sosso Bala, the first balafon, is in the care of my father, the Bala Tigui,” Balla explains. “It can only be played at very important ceremonies, like when a village chief dies, or at an important festival. They took it out to play it earlier this month for Tabaski, the Muslim holiday, but it cannot be played except for very important events like this.”
The origins of the Sosso Bala can be traced, in oral tradition, to the 1200s, when Soumaoro Kanté, a 13th-century king, found it one day while hunting. He was so taken by the instrument that he locked it away, and forbade anyone else to touch it.
“If even a mosquito landed on it, he would kill it,” Balla explains. “He put an eagle to guard it so that if anyone or anything came near it, the eagle would make a great noise and the king would know and would have them killed.”
But a djeli named Bala Faséké Kouyaté convinced the eagle to let him into the secret room to play the Sosso Bala. The king heard the music and knew his instrument was being played, but he was confused by the beauty of what he heard, convinced as he was that no one other than himself could play it so well. Moved by the music, he pardoned Bala Faséké and named him as his own personal djeli.
Not long after, Sundiata Keita overthrew Soumaoro Kanté and founded the Mali Empire. He named Bala Faséké the guardian of the Sosso Bala and declared that the responsibility and title would pass to his ancestors forever.
The story is one of the great epic origin stories in the rich body of West African oral tradition, and part of the earliest history of the Mali Empire. Bala Faséké’s descendants did indeed become the keepers of the Sosso Bala, and every balafon created since has owed its design to that original instrument. Today, Balla Kouyaté traces not only his lineage as a djeli but also his name to his legendary ancestor, and the Sosso Bala has been named a UNESCO Artifact of Oral and Intangible History. It is even kept in its own house in Kouyaté’s father’s village on the Mali-Guinea border.
Moving out, moving on, moving abroad
Given his family’s deep historical ties to djeli tradition, it’s no wonder that Balla grew up entrenched in playing the balafon. By the time he was a young man, he was a much-sought-after musician. He joined the Ensemble Nationale du Mali and toured the continent and beyond, playing for world leaders and dignitaries.
In 2000, he immigrated to New York and became a fixture in the West African community there.
“I could play with a lot of singers from Mali and a lot of old friends of mine were there,” he says. “I played in weddings and naming ceremonies and things and then I moved to Boston and I do the same thing there–I play all over for the important ceremonies.”
It’s not just the ceremonies though. He’s been featured on more than 25 albums, including Yo-Yo Ma’s Songs of Joy and Peace and Sing Me Home; in 2004, he did a month-long residency at Carnegie Hall. He has recordings archived in the Library of Congress, and he’s performed at the Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. He’s also taught at Harvard, MIT, Berklee School of Music and CalArts.
“I like playing all over the country and teaching but I’m still practicing the tradition from back home,” he notes. “Family history is very important to us. I took my children to Africa last year to see their roots. My children are both born here but I wanted them to see where their roots were.”
The nation’s highest honor
Earlier this year, Balla received news that would rival many of his notable accomplishments to date: he learned he’d been named a 2019 National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The fellowship is a lifetime honor presented to master traditional artists and is considered the United States’ highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
“It’s amazing, it’s incredible to have this honor,” Balla says. “For somebody like me who came here to this country, to be able to have this honor, this is America saying to the whole world how welcoming they are and how much they love diversity.”
In Mali, Balla explains, there is a saying that “no matter how sharp the knife, it will never be able to cut itself.”
“It means that it doesn’t matter how great you are, you can’t just tell yourself you are really great,” he continues. “Someone else has to think you are really great. This award, it means other people think I am great. Not just that I say I play the balafon great, but people voted for me. Americans voted for me as someone who is great. The United States is a very big deal in the world. Everybody looks up to them and to be able to win this fellowship, there’s nothing I can get in the United States more honorable than this. I don’t know how to thank the American people for this.”