‘A Night of African Music’ Births Beauty from the Beats of the Balafon

Music often captures what words cannot. The collections of sounds coalesce to form ideas and phrases that mean something to those who listen to them. When you introduce new types of sounds and instruments, much like learning a new language, listeners are given a different vocabulary to explore the same feelings in a different way. ‘An Evening of African Music’ was an introduction into a new way of seeing and hearing with artist Balla Kouyate of the Mande people of Mali. As his hand moved gracefully about the balafon, an ancient instrument, his technical skills and grace showcased his versatility as well as his instrument’s. Striking sounds from the balafon brought about the smiles on the faces of listeners in the presence of its unique sound.

The balafon, or bala, is a type of wooden xylophone originating from Africa. Typically constructed from pieces of wood shaved to create the desired sound and supported by calabash gourds for resonance, the balafon is an integral part in the roles of jeliw (griots), oral historians and musicians of West African tribes. These individuals would pass down history, records, and poetry for the people, effectively acting as a living time capsule for events that would otherwise be lost in time. Deeply rooted in this role of symbolism and heritage, Kouyate brings both tradition and innovation to the ancient craft and makes it his own. By placing two balafons horizontal to one another, Kouyate is able to utilize a wider array of notes. This allows for more complex musical movements that are heard in many of his pieces.

Kouyate, who played with his son Sekou and daughter Josira, showed that the history of the instrument and its unique sound continues to be passed on to generations. Though thousands of miles away from Mali, the cultural and historical ties were resolutely felt through these songs attesting to the history of Mali and the Mande people. The family served as a microcosm of sorts for the culture it represents.

The performance given in Gasson 100 highlighted the essential connection to family and tradition steeped in the instruments, as each song had family members contributing, be it through instrumentation, dance, or vocals. The movement expressed through the progression of each song was infectious and hard to subdue.

“It is hard to sit down and listen to this type of music,” Kouyate said at one point. The beat and intricate connection to flow and fluidity in the musical pieces proved to inspire or almost demand a response from listeners. And this held true as some members of the audience, in their own style, stood up and joined Josira as she danced to her father’s creations.

One of the most touching aspects of the show lied in the performance of “Massa ni Cisse,” a song about the Mande notion that people cannot run away from their destiny. Kouyate’s elated lyrics elevated the piece in a profound and moving way as his voice passionately rung out in a high, yet stable fashion. His voice complemented the balafon, dropping in and out, adding a beautiful embellishment to higher hits, or contrasts to lower notes, ringing out strong and solid. The notion of destiny was conveyed marvelously through these heartfelt vocals and strong strikes on the

The night closed with “Balla Folyke,” a song about Kouyate and his personal destiny as a jeli, passing down history and capture the past though the art of song and balafon.

“I am Balla and I play the bala,” Kouyate said. “You don’t meet many people who play the piano named Piano.”

In this poetic fashion, Kouyate spoke again to the nature of destiny and historical importance to his cultural craft. As the song progressed, Kouyate’s hands moved about the balafon with immense speed and precision, displaying a technical skill in addition to harmonious unity with the instrument, as the song was birthed as each single note rang out, filling out the musical progression.

Featured Image By Kristin Saleski / Heights Staff

About Caleb Griego 152 Articles
Caleb Griego is the arts & review editor of The Heights. He has put his earphones through the wash at least a dozen times and they still work. He still doesn't know who to thank, so he prays to all deities just to be safe.