It’s easy enough to find musicians who credit their parents and grandparents for passing on their love of music. Mali’s Balla Kouyaté might be the only person in the world who can credit an ancestor from the 13th century.
According to historical sources and family lore alike, as part of the court of the newly established Empire of Mali – which would rule West Africa for hundreds of years – Balla Fasséké was appointed as the first griot, or musical storyteller-cum-oral historian, in the Kouyaté line of griots that still exists today. Central to this practice, which is also referred to as the Djeli tradition, is the balafon, a pitched idiophone and precursor to the xylophone. This tradition, as well as the official guardianship of what is widely thought to be the first balafon in existence, has been passed on from generation to generation. Amazingly enough, the Kouyaté family – specifically, Balla’s father, El Hadji Sekou Kouyaté – still guards the original balafon, which dates back approximately 1,000 years. This specific instrument, designated as a UNESCO Artifact of Oral and Intangible History, is only taken out and played on ceremonial occasions.
Luckily, there are other balafons available to Balla Kouyaté, considered a virtuoso of the instrument. Kouyaté has dedicated himself to introducing the balafon to the world stage, devoting much of his career to collaborations with musicians from other countries – notably through his own fusion group World Vision and with Yo-Yo Ma’s global music collective, Silkroad. He has also expanded the harmonic palette of the balafon by introducing the practice of playing two differently pitched sets at the same time, allowing him access to a full chromatic scale.
While teaching at Silkroad’s Global Musician Workshop, hosted by DePauw University, Kouyaté took some time to demonstrate the instrument and talk about its construction.