Art Works Blog

Celebrate 2019 NEA National Heritage Fellow Balla Kouyaté!

Balafon player and djeli Balla Kouyaté’s lineage goes back more than 800 years to Balla Faséké, the first of an unbroken line of djelis in the Kouyaté clan. The word “djeli” derives from the Mandinka language, meaning the oral historians, musicians, and performers who keep alive and celebrate the history of the Mandé people of Mali, Guinea, and other West African countries. Kouyaté explains, “It means blood and speaks to the central role we play in our society.” Kouyaté’s dedication to carrying on his family’s hereditary role as a djeli, his musical virtuosity on the balafon (the West African antecedent of the xylophone), and his humble nature and humility set him apart from others.

Oral tradition holds that when the emperor Sundiata overthrew Soumaora Kante, he appointed the Kouyaté family to protect the balafon. Today, Balla Kouyaté is a virtuoso player of this instrument. Played with mallets, the balafon is made up of wooden slats and rows of calabash gourds, which serve as natural amplifiers. The original musical instrument, known as the “Sosso-Bala,” survives in Kouyaté’s father’s home village of Niagassola, on the Mali-Guinea border. In 2001, the Sosso-Bala was declared a item of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO and is brought out once a year for ceremonial playing. MORE...

Join us as we celebrate Balla Kouyaté and the other 2019 NEA National Heritage Fellows at a free concert on Friday, September 20 at 8:00 PM ET. Watch live at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall or online at arts.gov. Find ticket and other information here.

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