Balla Kouyate
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Balla Kouyate

Boston, Massachusetts, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2007 | SELF

Boston, Massachusetts, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2007
Band World Afropop




"Balla Kouyaté's Family Has Been Playing This Ancient Instrument For 800 Years"

by Cristela Guerra

As a boy in Mali, Balla Kouyaté remembers playing the balafon to motivate workers on a farm. He was so small, he had to stand on a large rock to be seen by the crowd. An opportunity like that would often provide his family with enough food for at least six months, if not a year. The bubbling, penetrating sound of this African ancestor of the xylophone was an essential part of his upbringing, as consistent as laughter, an extension of himself.

“This is a constant sound in the family,” Kouyaté said during a recent interview, “a constant sound. Like as long as we're not sleeping, you would hear this instrument.”

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Eight hundred years ago, emperor Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali empire, appointed Kouyaté’s family as guardians of the balafon. Since then, every male relative has learned to play what is considered a sacred instrument. They're oral historians, musicians and performers that hold the history of the Mandé people of Mali, Guinea and other nations. Thus, to play the balafon is Kouyaté’s inheritance, a sacred rite.

As soon as Kouyaté could sit up, a mallet was placed in his hand. In the Mandinka language, the tradition Kouyaté was raised in is known as “djeli." The roots of this word means blood. Those who play the balafon are the bards of their people.

Last Wednesday, the National Endowment for the Arts honored Kouyaté as a 2019 NEA National Heritage Fellow, the nation's highest honor in folk and traditional arts.

"That's my goal, to put the balafon on the map," Kouyaté said. "When you talk about violin or piano or trumpet, no one would tell you, 'Oh what's that?' "

Balla Kouyaté plays at the National Heritage Fellowships Concert on Sept. 20 in Washington D.C. (Courtesy Tom Pich and National Endowment for the Arts)
Balla Kouyaté plays at the National Heritage Fellowships Concert on Sept. 20 in Washington D.C. (Courtesy Tom Pich and National Endowment for the Arts)
On a recent Monday, Balla Kouyaté plays the balafon in his mother-in-law's living room in Quincy. We met here because there was construction in his nearby Medford home. Kouyaté has been in the United States for about 20 years since emigrating from Bamako, the capital of Mali.

Here, in this home of dark wood furniture and beige and blue hues, eastern and western musical tastes blend together. During Christmas holidays, Kouyaté plays the balafon for his family, while his brother-in-law plays the piano. They trade off playing ancient African songs and oldies by Neil Diamond.

“For me, I would say there’s nothing in this world that would make me happy more than playing this instrument," Kouyaté said. "I hope I can be a millionaire or billionaire one day but even if I have a billion [dollars], it won’t make me happy more than playing this balafon.”

A balafon consists of 21 slats made of rosewood. These slats, which serve as the keys, are tied together with nylon strings, or sometimes antelope or goat skin. Bamboo trees make up the thin base and underneath each key are gourds to amplify the sound.

Kouyaté said he only intended to stay in this country for two months when he first visited with his sister, but he fell in love with his wife, Kris, and ended up staying two decades. Now the father of two teaches at the New England Conservatory.

"I want to talk about the art [of playing the balafon] because a lot of people think it is only about discipline in music. It's also about the beauty," Kouyaté said. "That's why getting this award is not just for me ... this is about my family, my legacy, my nation, the whole continent. It's not just being a great player, but the history behind it."

As soon as his son could sit up, Kouyaté put a mallet in the boy's hand and began teaching him the balafon in their Medford home. After all, there's still a lineage to preserve. The world's oldest balafon is known as the Sosso-Bala. It resides in Kouyaté’s father’s home village of Niagassola on the Mali-Guinea border.

In 2001, the Sosso-Bala was named a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO. Brought out of its hut once a year for ceremonial playing, the 13th-century instrument cannot leave the village unless it is carried on the back of its keeper.

When Kouyaté's 98-year-old father eventually passes, the Sosso-Bala is passed on to the next oldest man in the family, which could one day be Balla Kouyaté.

"A lot of those songs we're playing are not just entertaining people, it's songs related to war, and songs related to happiness and celebrating the victory," Kouyaté said. "We are like the healers in our society."

Eight hundred years ago, emperor Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali empire, appointed Balla Kouyaté’s family as guardians of the balafon. Since then, every male relative has learned to play what is considered a sacred instrument. (Courtesy Tom Pich)
Eight hundred years ago, emperor Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali empire, appointed Balla Kouyaté’s family as guardians of the balafon. Since then, every male relative has learned to play what is considered a sacred instrument. (Courtesy Tom Pich)
Kouyaté has added a second balafon when he plays, which provides the notes that the traditional instrument lacks and gives him a much wider range.

He's collaborated with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Angélique Kidjo. This day, he plays western scales and ends with the first portion of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."

"I want to keep my tradition but at the same time I want to extend just to be able to play with other artists," Kouyaté said.

Maggie Holtzberg, folk arts and heritage program manager at the Mass Cultural Council, nominated Kouyaté for the award.

"You're competing with artists from all across the United States and not just musicians," Holtzberg said. "You're competing with crafts people, dancers, people carrying on traditions that are rooted in their ethnic heritage or their work heritage such as maritime. We were thrilled to learn that Balla was one of the nine recipients this year."

Kouyaté's cousin, Diemory Kouyaté, traveled from Germany for the ceremony. He said Balla's skills always stood out.

“He's an exception in our family because he's very talented,” Diemory Kouyaté said. “I can play balafon. We have many players in the family. No one can play as he is doing ... today he's a real ambassador to us, a real ambassador of the family.”

The djeli are there to soothe the senses. They are sometimes brought into mediate between husbands and wives or counsel the president. They serve as peacemakers.

This is Kouyaté's legacy, his heritage. The balafon is the soundtrack of his life.

This segment aired on September 27, 2019. - WBUR

"Balafon master has his hands on a legacy: Kouyaté preserves and passes on West African folklore and heritage"

By Siddhartha Mitter
Globe Correspondent / December 6, 2009

It’s one thing to be born into a musical family. It’s another thing altogether to be entrusted, by birth, with guardianship of a tradition that dates to medieval times and is central to the culture and memories of an entire society.

That’s the burden that Balla Kouyaté, griot and virtuoso of the West African instrument called balafon, shoulders today. It’s also the heritage that the Boston-based Kouyaté seeks to blend with other cultures he has encountered here.

Kouyaté will perform Thursday at Johnny D’s with his group World Vision - a shifting lineup that includes members with roots in China, Lebanon, Senegal, and Ivory Coast, with occasional guests from the salsa and jazz traditions. It’s a fusion project, but a rigorous one, where global-pop remakes (for instance, of the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan’’) only augment a core of material passed down through the folklore of great West African empires and local traditions in present-day Mali and Guinea.

Played with mallets, the balafon is a slatted instrument with wood keys of varying length and thickness, strung on a wood frame with leather straps, with gourds hung under the keys to supply resonance. It is similar to a xylophone or vibraphone, but the balafon’s sound is organic and rougher-hewn.

“People think my name is Balla so I’m playing the balafon, which is kind of funny,’’ Kouyaté says over coffee in a Senegalese cafe in Harlem. He divides his time between Boston, where he lives with his wife and children, and New York, where he participates in the life of the large West African community.

His presence at weddings and festivals connects these immigrants with the deep history of the Malinké people, the umbrella ethnic group present across much of West Africa. That’s because Kouyaté’s family are the original griots, or praise-singers, of the Malinké empire, and guardians of reputedly the first balafon in existence.

The instrument’s origins are shrouded in myth. “No one made this balafon, from the story they tell us,’’ Kouyaté says. Instead, a 13th-century king, Soumaoro Kanté, is said to have found it one day while out hunting. He guarded it from human touch, until Kouyaté’s ancestor and namesake Balla Fasséké Kouyaté defied him and began to play it beautifully - at the same time assuaging the king by singing his praises. The balafon this way became the griot’s tool, predating other traditional melodic instruments, the banjo-like ngoni and the 21-string kora.

When the emperor Sundiata overthrew Soumaoro Kanté, he appointed the Kouyaté family to protect the balafon. The original instrument survives, in Kouyaté’s father’s village on the Mali-Guinea border. It is recognized by UNESCO as a world cultural treasure, and played once a year. “It has its own house,’’ Kouyaté says. “People check on it regularly, as if on a human being.’’

Kouyaté says all the family’s current generation know how to play the balafon, but only he has made it a profession. It’s only recently that players of traditional instruments have found commercial outlets as soloists or bandleaders. When Kouyaté was growing up, traditional players hovered on the sidelines of large guitar-and-horn bands like Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz or Mali’s Super Rail Band.

He credits celebrated kora player Toumani Diabaté, who has performed solo or led ensembles at venues like Carnegie Hall, for providing a different model: “He decided to go out on his own, and things started working out for him.’’ When Diabaté tours the United States, Kouyaté is one of his first-call accompanists.

Kouyaté moved to the United States in 2000, after accompanying his older sister, a singer, on tour, and deciding - against her advice - to try his luck here. He followed a classic immigrant path, living in the Bronx, then working in a grocery store in Albany, N.Y. Then his friend the kora player Balla Tounkara invited him to Boston.

Kouyaté married a Massachusetts woman with a background in African dance, and now makes his home in Medford while keeping a dwelling in New York. His operation is still home-grown: “It’s just my wife and I doing the booking and stuff. But it’s been a wonderful experience.’’

Two years ago Kouyaté independently released an album, “Sababu,’’ and he is currently recording another with the full band. He has worked with jazz musicians such as trombonist Roswell Rudd and experimental bandleader Butch Morris, and he has even appeared on a project by Yo-Yo Ma - a fulfillment of a dream, he says.

Those experiences have Kouyaté setting his hopes high. “What Bela Fleck brought to the banjo, Yo-Yo Ma brought to the cello, Toumani brought to the kora, that’s what I want to bring to the balafon,’’ he says. “That’s my goal.’’

BALLA KOUYATÉ Performs at Johnny D’s, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $10; information 617-776-2004

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company. - The Boston Globe

"New York’s Mande Diaspora, Part 2: Beyond Community (excerpted)"

For full text see link at bottom:

Banning Eyre: Let's talk about a more recent member of the community, Balla Kouyaté.

Ryan Skinner: Balla Kouyaté is a Malian jeli. He plays the bala, which is the Mande xylophone, and he is one of the most remarkable exponents of that instrument that I have ever come across—a true virtuoso. He’s also a very humble young man, soft-spoken, reticent in some ways, but he says enough through his music making. His encounter with United States is more recent. He came in 2000. And again, like Abdoulaye, I don't think he consciously left music, but circumstances being what they were, he was forced to make a living outside of music. He did not immediately connect with the people who would have brought him into the music scene in New York. And that shows that while the community is large and growing, it is still not totally self evident to a newcomer to locate these places that are going to in a sustainable way help you make a living, whether you are an artist or a businessman or whatever you do. I know a number of people who do import/export and trading kinds of things, and it's very difficult to find that sustainable network of people who can in some way guarantee at least in the short term a viable economy for your household.

Balla Kouyate and family (Eyre, 2009)

So Balla travels to Albany. How that worked out, I'm not sure. But he ends up in a grocery store in which, so he says, the only language he hears is Arabic. He might be working in a back room. He feels not only alienated from home, but from the United States as well. He is in a place where if he has some English, it’s not being put to use. He’s doing work that is totally discordant with his upbringing, with the fact that he has released dozens of albums, that he has some renown back home, and here he is in a grocery store. So very early, as his experience progressed, he says, “I can't do this. I have a career for myself. I have traveled widely in West Africa. Why should I be here?”

Serendipity struck him in the figure of Balla Tounkara, the kora player who at the time was based in Boston and now is very much part of the New York community. And he really both mentors and takes Balla under his wing. They tour together and make music together. If Balla was experiencing a sense of abject alienation, a form of deep fulfillment and contentment with his work emerges that has now convinced him that this is a place where he wants to stay and develop his career as a musician. And so, from Boston, through the tours, Balla eventually finds himself in New York, where he has done a remarkable job at performing both for local ceremonies within the Mande community, baptisms and marriages, servicing that important binding together, the bringing together of a community that is far from home and that needs to be reminded of its togetherness. And again, this is such an important role of the jeliw, to remind people that they have to be together. Not only on organizing ceremonies, but in the ceremonies themselves, saying, “Why is this important? This is important because we are giving a name to this child, or we are bringing this man and woman together, but also, we are a community and we need to come together.”

Balla Kouyate with MALIcool, NYC

And so he becomes an integral part of that. At the same time, with his virtuosity and true musical skill and breadth of mind, he begins some extraordinary collaborations with local artists, African and American alike. Most notably, during my time, he was performing with trombonist Roswell Rudd with kora player Mamadou Diabaté and their Mali Cool project, which I had the great fortune of seeing born with Toumani Diabaté in Bamako. Later on, I saw its translation into the New York scene with these local Mande New York artists—a remarkable homecoming. What an amazing thing to see Balla truly explore those jazz spaces, and then to go back uptown with him and to perform at a wedding where that classical repertoire is deployed with equal force.

B.E.: Balla’s latest coup was to record a track with Yo-Yo Ma on an album called "Songs of Joy and Peace.”

R.S.: I was not aware of that. That's great. He should have performed at the inauguration.

B.E.: Actually, he and Yacouba and a singer were down there. They performed at an unofficial ball at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.

R.S.: In my research, I was very interested in this dialectic between the innovatory moves—the creative moves that these artists were making—but also the ways that they self-consciously root themselves in the tradition. And I remember Balla showing me on his instrument, "This is how my grandfather would play this piece.” It might have been “Duga,” or some really great song. “And this is how my father played it. And this is how I have experimented." And you heard the jazz. You heard these things that he was not just listening to, but deeply, deeply invested in an - Afropop Worldwide

"Echoes through the ages"

by Kathleen Pierce,

When your last name translates to musician, your future is pretty much cast in stone. And if your great-great-great (add 10 more greats) grandfather discovers an instrument that goes on to define your country's sound, your lot is just about sealed. To say West African native Balla Kouyaté was born with a balafon in his hand is not overstating it.

"This instrument belongs to my family; everyone played it, everyone. My name is Balla and I play the balafon," said Kouyaté, one of 25 acts performing at the 22nd Lowell Folk Festival next weekend.

The percussion, a calabash gourd with two holes, dates back 800 years to his ancestor, Balla Faseke Kouyaté, who was given the instrument by a ruling monarch from Mali.

"The balafon belonged to my family in the 12th century. The king gave it to my ancestors. It's been passed down from generation to generation," said the 36-year-old musician in a rich voice tinged with cheer.

His father is now the custodian of the instrument, an honor not lost on the National Council for the Traditional Arts, who create the musical segment of folk festivals, like Lowell's, across the country.

"It would be hard to trump him in terms of tradition," said Julia Olin, executive director of NCTA. Olin first heard Kouyaté at a National Heritage fellowship performance and recognized his skill and pedigree as that of a master. He is known as a djelis, an oral historian, someone who carries forth the history of the nation. It's a heavy honor he handles with pride.

"I want to spread my music to the whole world. I want to spread my culture to the people here. I'm so excited to be playing the Lowell Folk Festival," he said.

It's not his first time. Kouyaté performed with Mamadou Diabate in 2004 and has fond memories.

"It was a good crowd. The kind of things a musician likes. They appreciate what you are doing and it makes you want to do it more. This time is my own with my own band."

Kouyaté will be joined by World Vision. His band includes a bass player, an acoustic guitarist, and a jembe (hand drum) and is made up of musicians from the Ivory Coast, Senegal and Boston.

He plays two balafons, which he has augmented with red wood from Africa, simultaneously. The difference in sound "is like black keys on a piano and white keys," he said.

Moving to America in 2000, Kouyaté settled into a gig in Cambridge at the Middle East rock club where he met his wife. They live in Medford and have three children; his youngest, Sekou, will be playing the jembe with him on stage next weekend.

He recently recorded with classical cellist Yo Yo Ma and regularly gives talks on the balafon at Harvard University and across the country.

Two years ago, he taught handicapped people in Minneapolis to play the instrument. Some had lost their legs. Others were blind.
"They loved it. The sound, the way the balafon, the gourds, vibrated surprised them."

So what does it sound like? "What I believe you hear in America. Lot of bands are blues and jazz. We came from Mali where there are so many different tribes, the connection is kind of easy to join," he said.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization considers the instrument one of the great works of art, said Olin. By spreading the word about his odd-shaped ax, Kouyaté keeps his family's spirit alive.

"His presence and participation in the festival also reflects the festival's role in showcasing local and regional traditions. He represents all the threads that the festival weaves together," said Olin.
The fact that Kouyaté and other artists this year, like Mighty Sam McClain, are New England-based is a happy coincidence.

"I think the Lowell Folk Festival is fortunate to be located in an extremely culturally rich area, with many ethnic and nation communities," said Olin. "It's just a wonderful convergence."

Balla Kouyaté plays the Lee Street Stage Saturday at 3:15 p.m. and Sunday at JFK Plaza at 1 p.m and Boarding House Park at 4 p.m. Free.

(c) 2008 The Sun (Lowell, MA). All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.
- Lowell Sun

"Taking the day where the music takes you"

by Kathleen Pierce,
LOWELL -- "This song is about peace and happiness," said Balla Kouyate, yesterday under a hot Lee Street tent. As the sunny notes from the Mali native's balafon, an 800-year-old instrument made of gourds and wood, perked up the sweltering crowd, the message of this year's Lowell Folk Festival rang forth.
Told in the warm smile Kouyate flashed his percussionist as their tribal jam took flight, found in Penpa Tsering's light-filled eyes when he sang a Tibetan love song, detected in the Skatalites' song "Freedom," peace, love and family pride were the overtones of the day.
"My first time here. Thank you, Lowell Folk Festival," said Tsering, who, clad in a festive print garb, switched between whistles and tiny drums at St. Anne's Courtyard.
To cap his trance-like afternoon show, he let out a child-like squeal that amused the sleepy crowd.
"I like this guy," someone told a friend.
With six stages of music happening simultaneously, the festival is hard to take in. There's a constant fear you will miss something. But when pulled into the orbit of an ancient African beat or the happy bounce of ska in the summer sun, you have no choice but to go where the music takes you.
And once there, linger.
The faithful that make the free festival a rite of summer understand this.
"I'm doing this until I die," said 71-year-old Dottie Athens, taking a break from the crowded floor at the Dutton Street Dance Pavilion.
The Hubbardston resident, dancing with her son, had a smile that looked like Christmas morning.
"I can't wait for this every year," she said.
To see all walks of life, and dance styles, groove to one of Jamaica's seminal ska bands, is what festival music is all about. The contemporaries of Bob Marley and the Wailers may only have one original member left, but their spirit is in sync with the commandments of the LFF.
"Three, two, one freedom," they sang as the crowd under the tent stomped and nodded.
Sunday was still a day away, but over at JFK Plaza, church was in session. Sister Marie Knight was in the house. Emerging in a flowing black robe, the New York priestess lead the crowd through a gospel music session that was part blessing, part boogie.
"If you got hands you can clap, and you should be glad you've got them," she said.
Performing with piano player Dave Keyes, a cool cat in a porkpie hat, Knight intoned a series of "Hallelujahs," and the multi-denominational crowd responded. Even those that appeared more interested in losh kebabs and sunbathing were converted by the time she left the altar.
Around the corner at Boarding House Park, the festive accordion of Roise Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys had everyone swing dancing on the lawn. The harmonious scene, accented by people in straw hats balancing plates of ribs on their knees, was vintage Lowell Folk Fest. As the sun made its slow descent, the stage was set for another diverse day of great music.

(c) 2008 The Sun (Lowell, MA). All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.
- Lowell Sun

"Local folk from around the world lively up Lowell fest"

The last weekend of every July, the Lowell Folk Festival highlights a few top-notch, nationally known roots musicians.
Billed as “the largest free folk festival in the United States,” this year’s expertly programmed event includes Jamaican ska and reggae from the Skatalites, gospel from Sister Marie Knight and bluegrass from the Lonesome River Band. Mighty Sam McClain will wail soul, and master of the Telecaster Redd Volkaert will do some fancy country pickin’. In a festival coup, Louisiana blues piano legend Henry Gray, 83, best known for his stint with Howlin’ Wolf, makes a rare appearance.
Each Lowell fest also features a rich brew of local acts, and thanks to some extra funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, an especially diverse array of gifted locals will be heard.
• Balla Kouyate moved from Mali to Medford a few years ago. A master of the ancient balafon - a xylophone-like instrument - Kouyate’s family members have been balafon players and story-telling griots for 800 years.
“My role is to keep the traditions of my ancestors alive,” said Kouyate, who recently recorded with Yo-Yo Ma.
How does the balafon translate to Medford?
“People might not know what a balafon is,” he said, “but our music is a healing force and people respond to it.”
• Tibetan native and Somerville resident Penpa Tsering plays 14 different traditional instruments. “He made a 27-day trip across the Himalayas when he left Tibet in 1989,” said Julia Olin, who, as director of the National Center for Traditional Arts, books the Lowell fest.
• Mariachi Estampa de America, which combine mariachi and norteno music, often play at Chelsea’s El Rancho Grande restaurant. By combining players from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and the United States, the band is like Chelsea’s version of the United Nations - or at least the Organization of American States.
• Gund Kwok might be the only all-female Lion & Dragon Dance Troupe in the United States. “Traditionally, women were not allowed in this art,” said Cheng Imm Tan, who first came to Boston 30 years ago as a student. “When we take off our lion head, the audience is very surprised we are all women. It is a dance that requires strength, teamwork, grace and also great skill to maneuver the lion’s head and tail.”
• Carnatic violinist Suhas Rao is a 17-year-old Westwood native entering Harvard this fall. He plays the 4,000-year-old classical music of South India.
“The word raga actually means mood in Sanskrit,” he said, “and the thousands of emotions that can be conveyed through ragas make it appealing from the start.”
•The art of Andrew Nemr and Rocky Mendes is a little closer to home: They are tap dancers who learned their craft in Hanson from late tap legend Jimmy Slyde. Nemr believes the universal appeal of tap is tied to its spontaneous nature. “There’s a continual potential for magical moments,” he said. “The joy we express tends to be contagious, appealing to first-time and seasoned audiences alike.”
• Dynasty is a “mas” band of the kind that enlivens the famous carnival in the Caribbean island of Trinidad. But this fantastically costumed “mas” band is from Boston. If you miss them in Lowell, at least you’ll have a second chance when they parade in Boston’s Caribbean Carnival on Aug. 23.
Lowell Folk Festival, Friday through Sunday, downtown Lowell. Free. 978-970-5000 or
Article URL:
- Boston Herald

"WORLD MUSIC REVIEW; When Cultures' Sounds Don't Match, but Echo"

February 18, 2004

How do you tune a balafon? At an engrossing concert at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn on Friday night,
the trombonist Roswell Rudd gave the answer: you don't.
The balafon is a wooden West African instrument that resembles a xylophone, and every balafon produces a
slightly different set of notes. So the members of Mr. Rudd's hybrid band made sure their instruments
matched Balla Kouyate's balafon. The only way to stay in tune was to be slightly out of tune.
The concert grew out of a 2002 CD called, ''MALIcool'' (Sunnyside/Universal), a collaboration between Mr.
Rudd and the Malian kora player Toumani Diabate. (The kora is a 21-string instrument with a long neck.) For
the current tour, Toumani Diabate has been replaced by another kora virtuoso, his cousin Mamadou Diabate,
but the spirit remained the same. Mr. Rudd and his bandmates explored a world of musical assonance, where
instruments echoed one another without quite falling into lockstep.
Mr. Rudd sometimes amused Mr. Diabate and Mr. Kouyate by unleashing wildly off-kilter trombone slides.
When he swung his instrument while emitting long warping notes, he looked and sounded like a drunken
elephant. Other times Mr. Rudd just sat back and watched, swaying in time to the swinging polyrhythms.
During the CD's title track, Mr. Rudd's graceful solo got a prickly but no less graceful response from Mr.
Kouyate. Mr. Rudd directed the musicians with vigorous gestures (a cross between conducting and air guitar),
then the musicians hit the penultimate note together, with Mr. Rudd balancing on one foot. After a split
second of silence, his other foot hit the stage with a faint thud.
All night long Mr. Diabate unleashed dense, dazzling riffs on his kora, which sounds a bit like a harpsichord.
On the album Toumani Diabate found subtle ways to echo jazz harmonies, but Mamadou Diabate's style is
more strident. During ''All Through the Night,'' a Welsh folk song featuring the singer Nora York, he took the
stately tune in a new direction with a zigzagging solo full of unexpected clusters of notes.
There were times when the overlapping rhythms and laissez-faire arrangements devolved into a multicultural
muddle. But more often the musicians' curiosity was contagious, especially during a version of Thelonious
Monk's ''Jackie-ing,'' where Mr. Diabate and Mr. Kouyate delighted in Monk's lopsided melody.
At the beginning of the second set, Mr. Diabate took the microphone to say something about the universal
language of music. ''We are all eunuch,'' he said, and a murmur arose. But then he continued, explaining that
everyone is different, and people realized that they had misheard him. - New York Times

"When it comes to multicultural mingling, the World Music Festival scores."

By Craig Keller and Martina Sheehan
Daley’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games already has us primping for a cosmopolitan ball, but you don’t have to wait until that five-ring circus comes to town to get into an intensely concentrated dose of global relations. The ninth annual World Music Festival, which runs from Friday 14 through September 20, isn’t a blowout like Blues Fest, but its roots spread much further: 50 artists from 32 countries performing 63 shows in 26 venues across the city. If you’ve been curious but hesitant about exploring the rest of the planet’s musical preferences, consider this week a crash-course taste of tuneage beyond our borders—from traditional folk to contemporary electronic beats.
But the party doesn’t have to be limited to the concert stage: We picked six of the fest’s most intriguing acts and paired them with related cultural pursuits. So if the music has you hooked, you can feed your need with cuisine, home décor and more from the band’s native country.
These are our picks for the best shows at this year’s sprawling festival. Many of these artists will also appear at various Borders locations, the Chicago Cultural Center, Navy Pier and other venues during the day. For a full schedule, go to
Saturday 15
FREE Balla Kouyaté and World Vision
Noon. Garfield Park Conservatory Fair. We forgive you if you were a little distracted during Mamadou Diabaté’s recent Chicago appearances by the badass Balla Kouyaté. Although he was merely a supporting musician, this virtuoso of the balafon—an ancestor to the xylophone—ripped off solo after solo of crackling Afro-jazz bebop. Born in Mali, Kouyaté’s mastery of jazz has since brought him to New York, where he now lives.
- Time Out Chicago

"Balla Kouyate & World Vision"

By Peter Margasak

Balla Kouyate & World Vision
Balla Kouyate, a superb young balafon player from Mali, has already been through town supporting kora player Mamadou Diabate, but his band World Vision has legs of its own. The instrumentation is unlikely—Kouyate’s gorgeous, fluid balafon is accompanied only by the djembe of Pablo Dembele and the violin of Patty Tang—but it sure does work. Tang mostly stays in the background, sometimes approximating bass parts—her harmonies and countermelodies work like glue, connecting Kouyate’s warm and inventive lead lines to the simple, hypnotic hand-drum grooves. Most of World Vision’s material is traditional, but they do a killer version of “Chan Chan,” the Cuban classic by Compay Segundo.
- Chicago Reader


Recording Musician/Arranger/Composer (abridged list)

Balla Kouyate with Friends and Family, Forthcoming Album
The Silk Road Ensemble, Sing Me Home

Vusi Mahlasela Say Africa
Angelique Kidjo, Oyo
Yo-Yo Ma, Songs of Joy and Peace
Oran Etkin, Kelenia
Balla Kouyaté and World Vision, Sababu
Ursel Schlicht, Ex Tempore
Sidiki Condé, Sidiki
Rex Chequer’s Manding Jata, Sajoo
Mamadou Diabaté, Heritage
Balla Tounkara, MaliFoly and Yayaroba
Ami Koita, Djigi
Djessira Condé, Ladiaba
Kanibaoule Kouyaté, Democracie and Kaniba
Tata Bambo Kouyaté, Kansiri and Kagosi



Balla Kouyaté is considered a balafon virtuoso. Born in Mali, he was raised in the Djeli tradition by his father and family since the age of six. Balla was fortuitously given the name of his ancestor, Balla Fasseké Kouyaté, the first Djeli of the Mande Empire and owner of the very, first balafon.

In 1994, he became a member of the renowned Ensemble Nationale du Mali. By 1997 he was recording for and touring Africa and Europe with top West African pop artists entertaining West African communities.

Sababu, the name of Balla's debut CD, means reason/purpose/ancient secret in Balla's native Mandinka language. As he was named, Balla was destined to play this ancient instrument. He believes it's his purpose to share his music and instrument with the world.

Moving freely in many different genres, Balla has also  been called on to play with many artists touring in the United States such as Yo-Yo Ma and Toumani Diabate, and has been featured on at least 45 albums including Yo-Yo Ma’s, Songs of Joy and Peace, The Silkroad Ensemble's Sing Me Home, Angelique Kidjo's CD, Oyo and Vusi Mahlasela's Say Africa. Balla has also played for many African artists touring in the United States, including Sekouba Bambino Diabaté, Mah Kouyaté, Kerfala Kanté, Babani Koné and Oumou Dioubaté. He has played major venues such as the Kennedy Center, The Library of Congress, Lincoln Center Outdoor Festival, Symphony Space, Carnegie Hall and many national and international music festival around the country.

While playing with Ursel Schlicht's Ex Tempore, a freestyle jazz group, he felt the need to expand the tonal possibilities of the balafon and created a chromatic instrument, allowing him to play any genre of music in any key.

Balla was awarded the prestigious 2019 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, a Boston Foundation Brother Thomas Fellowship in 2015, a 2010 Massachusetts Cultural Council's Artist Fellowship for the Traditional Arts among other honors. His music has been recorded and archived at the Library of Congress in DC. 

He is delighted to present his latest project, Balan Fanga, which means The Power of the Balafon in his native language. With this exciting initiative, Balla is teaming up with the best balafon players in the world and showing the possibilities of this little-known, beautiful instrument.  Here he has an outlet to share his Traditional, West African, Djeli fusion music, brought to life by extremely talented musicians, who have performed with some of the biggest stars in Mali, Guinea and Senegal. 

The group is working on Balla's second CD, which will also be a DVD to be released in 2011 with interviews and concert as well as day-in-the-life footage. It features some singing from some popular African artists. Stay tuned!