Balafon master has his hands on a legacy

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

Kouyate 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,” Kouyate 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 Malinke people, the umbrella ethnic group present across much of West Africa. That’s because Kouyate’s family are the original griots, or praise-singers, of the Malinke 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,” Kouyate says. Instead, a 13th-century king, Soumaoro Kante, is said to have found it one day while out hunting. He guarded it from human touch, until Kouyate’s ancestor and namesake Balla Fasseke Kouyate 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 Kante, he appointed the Kouyate family to protect the balafon. The original instrument survives, in Kouyate’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,” Kouyate says. “People check on it regularly, as if on a human being.”

Kouyate 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 Kouyate 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 Diabate, 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 Diabate tours the United States, Kouyate is one of his first-call accompanists.

Kouyate 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.

Kouyate 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 Kouyate 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 Kouyate 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.”