Balla Tounkara & Groupe Spirit
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Balla Tounkara & Groupe Spirit

Band World Pop


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"Boston Globe"

He might be just a man who plays a handmade African kora, a stringed instrument made out of a gourd, but Balla Tounkara believes he has things to offer America that stretch far beyond the music of his Native West African village. "Mali is the center of the griot tradition," he said proudly.

Tounkara's father was a griot, and his grandfather Batouroue Sekou Kouyate, who gave Balla his first kora, took the griot tradition to America as a guest of various presidents, including John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush.

In Mali, Tounkara, 28, had been steeped in the griot tradition early on and had mastered the rhythms and melodies of African music on his kora. His interests soon expanded, and he became fascinated with blues, jazz, rock, and world music, learning to integrate the new sounds into his approach to the kora. Tounkara reasoned the best place to find musicians playing all these styles would be the US, so he left Africa for New York City in 1996. There with only a tentative grasp of English, he quickly began to turn heads by bringing his kora to blues jams in Harlem. Before long he moved to Cambridge, joining forces with a cousin who teaches African dance, with Tounkara providing beats on the djembe and the talking drum. He also began performing for the public in Harvard Square and at the Middle East Corner, playing to local schools and colleges, playing his music and teaching an appreciation of the simpler things in life.

- 2001

"Afropop Worldwide"

Afropop Worldwide Aug 1, 2002

Balla Tounkara, The Griot of Boston

It's another Sunday night at the Middle East, and upstairs in the Bakery, people are dancing. They're shouting support to the musicians, a tight, propulsive combo led by a young Malian musician who plays the traditional 21-string harp, the kora. For over a year, Balla Tounkara has been holding court here on Sunday nights, and by any measure, this gig is working. I spent some years playing with African and other like-minded musicians trying to build an audience for African music in Boston. I used to play this very venue with American kora player David Gilden of, and we had some good nights, but nothing like this. I peruse the Bakery crowd and feel their exuberant, end-of-the-weekend energy surging as Tounkara's ensemble lashes out non-stop rhythm. I'm remembering that people used to call Gilden the "griot of Boston"--a reference to the musical bards of West Africa--but today, there's no doubting that Balla Tounkara claims that title.

The first time I met Tounkara, in Bamako, Mali, in 1995, I had no idea he had this in him. I was there studying guitar with Balla's uncle, Djelimady Tounkara, lead guitarist of the Super Rail Band and for me the greatest guitarist in Africa (the subject of my eventual book, "In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali" on Temple University Press.) It was after a family wedding at the end of a long day of music in the dusty street by the Tounkara household that Balla Tounkara approached me with his kora. He had been eyeing my recording gear and wanted me to help him record his music. "I've got good songs," he told me in French, the only language we shared. "I want to mix the kora with other instruments--guitar, keyboards, bass. I want to put the kora into blues, jazz, funk--everything!"

Tounkara was one of many young musicians who wanted something from me, and at the time I was more interested in folklore than fusion. So when he took up his kora hoping to show me the music in his head, I missed it all: the kora technique, the clear-eyed vision, and most of all, the gorgeous singing voice, a voice with range and subtlety that approaches the timbre and emotional impact of Mali's best known singer, Salif Keita. Polite but oblivious, I blew him off.

No hard feelings, Tounkara told me in near-perfect English when we sat down in his Allston apartment on a recent Sunday afternoon. As it turns out, he did just fine without me. Tounkara was born in a village called Boudefo, near Kita, a renowned center for griot arts. "The family of Tounkara is small," he told me. "We all come from one guy, Magandianyoule." Tounkara explained that the family patriarch had played a key role in the founding of the Malian Empire, 800 years ago. In Mali, that's heavy karma. "So Boudefo is one family--Tounkara. If somebody has another name, it comes from the mother's side. My grandfather is a djelifili, chief of the griots. He's 116."

Another of Tounkara's grandfathers was the late Batourou Sekou Kouyat?, one of the most respected kora players of the 20th century. Tounkara grew up playing drums: the doundoun, djembe, and tama (talking drum), "like every kid in Kita," he told me. He became serious about kora as a teenager, after he'd moved to the capital, Bamako. Tounkara practiced the demanding harp the way he does everything--with ferocious determination. "Sometimes my grandfather got mad at me because I was so curious," he recalled. "When he was not around, I'd come and take his kora and play for ten, fifteen hours. Then I got my little kora, and I'd go in my room and play until five in the morning. People got tired of me."

By the time I met him, Tounkara had played enough street weddings to know that traditional music was not his true calling. "I learned the tradition. That's who I am," he told me, "but I wanted to have my own experience. In my room, I was always listening to other music, Bob Marley, Diana Ross, John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Tina Turner, Tracy Chapman, Beatles, Pink Floyd, Manfred Mann, the Police. My grandfather told me the kora could play anything. He played the national anthems of France, United States, Guinea, and Mali. Okay, I said, he did these things. Why can't I?" Tounkara tuned his kora to pop music tapes and learned to accompany them. He nagged professional musicians like his uncle to teach him the names of notes and chords, and then he found them on his kora. With instinctive faith, Tounkara prepared himself for a career he could only imagine.

Then in 1996, Tounkara had a life-changing experience. One night, his uncle took him to a soir?e at the home of Babani Sissoko, at the time one of the wealthiest men in Mali and certainly its most generous arts patron. Tounkara got his chance when his uncle began to play one of the bulwarks of the griot repertoire, "Sunjata," the story of the first king of the Malian Empire. "I just sang for five minutes," Tounkara recalled, - Banning Eyre


Balla Tounkara Live in New York - 2005
Yayoroba – 2004
Malifoy – 2004
Putumayo Compilation – Congo to Cuba - 2002
Be Right - 2000
Peacemaker - 1999



Balla was born in Mali, West Africa into one of the most prestigious griot families in that country. Griots, the musicians, oral historians, storytellers, and peacemakers, date back to ancient times and although their roles have changed the tradition lives on.

Balla began playing the kora (a 21 stringed instrument) as a child. He received his first kora from his grandfather, Batouroue Sekou Kouyate, one of the most respected players of that instrument in the world. Balla studied the kora with his grandfathers, Batouroue and Samakou Tounkara, He learned to respect the music and maintain the culture’s history as well as his family history. His deep devotion to Manding music and his rich education has lead Balla to become a master kora player and vocalist.

Balla became interested in the possibilities of the kora beyond traditional Mande music. He was listening more and more to Western music, expanding his knowledge and wondering how his approach to playing the kora could be integrated with jazz, rock and blues. He left Mali in 1996 and settled in New York to develop and enrich his music, playing with accomplished Western musicians in the styles he was most interested in. He soon began to fuse traditional Mande music with all styles of music from jazz to funk to rock to hip hop and R & B to Latin to reggae.

Balla moved to Cambridge, MA where he could be heard playing on the streets of Harvard Square. His music literally stopped people in their tracks because of it’s beauty and uniqueness. He left the streets and began playing a weekly gig at the Middle East Corner, a tiny club outside of Harvard Square. He attracted a large group of loyal fans who showed up every week to see what Balla would do next.

Balla eventually formed his own group, Groupe Spirit. Although the members have changed throughout the years, the mission has remained the same, fusing traditional Mande music with Western music creating high energy, intelligent music. Groupe Spirit has performed all over the country and regularly perform in Boston and New York City. In 2004, they crossed the border to play in Canada on the Francopholie Festival stage in Montreal and the next year, they came back to play for the festival International Nuits d'Afrique. They perform a spicy, eclectic blend of African, Latin, Funk, Reggae and blues that can electrify any club.

When not performing with Groupe Spirit, Balla has toured all over the world with jazz bassist Ben Allison and his group Peace Pipe.

Balla est né au Mali, en Afrique de l’Ouest dans l’une des plus prestigieuses familles de griot de son pays. Les griots sont des musiciens, historiens oraux, conteurs d’histoires et faiseurs de paix et existent depuis les temps anciens. Ils ont permis à la tradition de transcender les siècles et encore aujourd’hui, de pouvoir être transmise.

Balla à débuté à jouer la Kora (instrument à 21 cordes) depuis l’enfance. Il a reçu sa première Kora de son grand-père, Batouroue Sekou Kouyate, l’un des joueurs les plus respectés au monde de cet instrument. Balla étudia la Kora avec ses grands-parents Batouroue et Samakou Tounkara, il appris le respect de la musique, l’histoire de la culture aussi bien que l’histoire de sa famille. Sa profonde dévouance pour la musique mandingue et sa riche éducation ont permis a Balla de devenir virtuose de la Kora et chanteur.

En plus d’étudier la musique traditionnelle du mandinque, Balla s’intéresse aux diverses possibilités que propose un instrument comme la kora. Il écoutait de plus en plus de musique de provenance des amériques, étendant ainsi ses connaissances et cherchant comment intégrer à sa musique, le jazz, le rock et le blues. Il a quitté le Mali en 1996 et s’installa à New York pour y développer et enrichir sa musique. Bientôt, il débute ses expérimentations par la fusion de la musique traditionnelle du Mandingue avec tous les styles de musique, du jazz au funk, en passant par le rock, le hip hop, R&B, de la musique latine jusqu’au reggae.

Déménagé à Cambridge, au Massassuchets, nous pouvions l’entendre jouer dans les rues du Harvard Square. Par sa beauté unique, la musique interpellait à un point tel les gens qu’il quitta les rues pour jouer chaque semaine au Middle East Corner, un petit club pas très loin du Harvard Square. Il attira un grand nombre de personnes qui à chaque semaine, venait fidèlement voir ce que Balla avait pu créer de nouveau.

Éventuellement, Balla créa son propre groupe, Groupe Spirit. Malgré le fait que les membres aient changés avec les années, la mission demeure toujours : pratiquer la fusion de la musique traditionnelle du Mandingue avec la «Western music », créant une grande énergie, une musique intelligente. Balla a présenté des concerts partout aux Etats-Unis et régulièrement, on peut le voir accompagné de son groupe à Boston et New York. En 2004, le groupe traversent la frontière américaine pour jouer sur la scène des Francofolies de Montréal, au Canada.