Balla Tounkara "Griot"  

Balla Tounkara "Be Right"

The music of Balla Tounkara represents the best of tradition and innovation a fluid harmony of old world and new.

Native of Mali, West Africa, and schooled in the discipline of traditional African music, he brings an incredible ear for structure and rhythmic nuance to contemporary styles from rock, reggae and hip- hop to gospel and blues. A true virtuoso of the kora, he can make it harp-like strings produce the hummingbird-trills of traditional African melodies, or belt out the soulful bass tones of the blues.
On this recording, his debut CD with the band, he also demonstrates his agility as an arranger, layering each song as a complex pastiche of culture, philosophy and musical idiom- a crossroads in his musical journey through the world.

"The kora can play any music in the world," Balla says. "It's my dream to put the kora into my own experience-to put the culture of Mali into modern styles." No one else puts the kora through so many stylistic changes. He is a kind of bard, or troubadour: For Balla, the kora is not just an instrument; it's the spiritual accompaniment to his deepest thoughts on life religion, politics and culture. He plays whatever he hears; the kora represents his response to surroundings. It's part of his eloquence as much as his singing voice and the lyrics he composes.

All this derives from his upbringing as a "griot"; the traditional bard / singer / storyteller / peacemaker native to the Mandinka people of West Africa. It's a role handed down through families, for generations; it lies at the core of Balla's relationship to music, and to art in general.

In ancient times, the griot was not only the court musician, bard, storyteller and oral historian, but also an official conciliator and spokesman for the king. Denoted a "master of eloquence," the griot could intervene at will in public debate; his words were expected to fall like honey into the midst of bitter argument, soothing conflicts between political factions - out of struggle and disquiet, the griot brought peace. He was considered the right hand, the mind, the mouthpiece of the king: A word from the griot was a word of implicit authority. As a musician, his skill with the kora was meant to extend the impact of his words. The griot played not just to entertain but to teach, and to uplift. The kora lay at the heart of griot ritual.

Though the role of the griot has evolved over the centuries, he remains central to cultural life in West Africa. Balla Tounkara was born into this tradition-raised in the village of Boudefo, in the mountainous state of Kita. Balla traces his own ancestry to the great king Sundiata Keita, and to the generations of griots who honed their trade in this gentle, agricultural valley where, Balla says, monkeys roam freely in the gardens; and eagles soar overhead. Kita is also the most prominent centre of griot culture in all Mali, and it was here that Balla was trained in griot disciplines by (among others) his uncle, Djeli Madi Tounkara, a famed electric guitarist and pioneer of modem Afro-Cuban styles; his grandfather, Batourou Sekou Kouyate, one of the most renowned kora player of his day; his mother, Miriam Kanoute, and his grandmother, Mah Diagansira, acclaimed vocalist who fostered his own traditional singing style.

It is with this foundation, both musical and spiritual, that Balla set out, a journeyman-bard, to carry his musical message to the world. "I came to America," he says, "and I struggled to produce this new sound by hearing and listening." He has performed with some of the biggest names in African music Salif Keita; Baba Maal; Baba Olotunje but his inspiration seems to come from daily life, from the sounds of the street, from the melting pot of musical styles. He finds here-everything from Cuban or Brazilian dance music to jazz to the lone blues singer busking in the streets of Harvard Square. This record is not only a showpiece of technical and compositional finesse; it is a musical chronicle of the griot's American adventure.
We are hearing the sounds of Africa, but also the sounds of America-the shame and beauty of its history; the intensity of its commercial appetites and sprawling urban vistas "Every tune is a tale of two worlds, expressed with the griot's unparalleled eloquence".

Catherine A. Salmons Critic,
The Boston Phoenix

MAJ 15/01/2004