For Balla Kouyaté, the balafon has always been more than just an instrument.
A West African antecedent of the xylophone, it’s been in his family for 800 years, dating back so far that history blends into myth, to times only made visible today through music and storytelling. When he plays the balafon, twin mallets dancing across wooden slats as gourd resonators underneath amplify the sound, Kouyaté isn’t just performing music — he’s preserving his country’s true past.
“We’re not just entertaining or performing,” said the Medford resident, music director of Worcester-based Crocodile River Music, speaking by phone. “We are keepers of our people’s history. That’s very important. You can only know where you’re headed if you know where you came from.”
Kouyaté traveled to Washington, D.C., in late September to accept one of this year’s nine National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowships, the country’s highest honor for folk and traditional musicians.
“It was overwhelming,” said Kouyaté of his recent trip to the US capital, during which he received $25,000. “It meant a lot, not just to me but to my family here and back home, to the whole African nation.”
Kouyaté has been playing the balafon since he was 6. His family’s stewardship of the instrument dates to Balla Faséké, the first-known “djeli,” or griot; the word itself, which translates to “blood,” indicates the pivotal role such figures play in West African society. According to oral tradition, passed down through a Malinké epic poem known as the Epic of Sundiata, Faséké was supposedly entrusted with the balafon by the emperor Sundiata Keita after his overthrow of the tyrant Soumaoro Kanté, its original owner.
Kouyaté’s father keeps watch over that legendary original instrument, known as the “Sossa-Bala,” back home in Niagassola, along the Mali-Guinea border. One day, the artifact — declared an item of tangible cultural heritage by UNESCO — will be passed down again, from father to son.
Kouyaté came to the United States almost 20 years ago to pursue music, moving to Boston around 2005. He’s been gratified by the music community he’s discovered since, especially within West African immigrant communities throughout the Greater Boston area and New England.
In addition to being part of the faculty at New England Conservatory, Kouyaté serves as soloist, arranger, and bandleader at Crocodile River, which focuses on African and African-influenced music while facilitating educational workshops in schools. His music, though true to the Malinké tradition, also employs elements of jazz and salsa; it’s often called fusion, and has piqued the interest of performers in many a genre. Yo-Yo Ma ranks among his most famous collaborators, with Kouyaté having been featured on two of the legendary cellist’s albums.
For the balafon master, an NEA fellowship feels like validation of hard work across two decades — and freshly added fuel that will propel him forward.
“There is no award higher in the United States when it comes to the traditional music of art,” said Kouyaté. “A lot of doors have already been opened for me, but a whole lot more will open now.”
As Kouyaté speaks, he’s driving back from Bloomington, Ind., where he presented at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival. And this month, he’ll travel to Richmond, Va., for a folk festival, sharing the stage with Austrian balafon master Mamadou Diabaté. It’s a busy time for Kouyaté, especially given that he’s balancing all the travel with work on a new album at Crocodile River.
“Most of my job still relies on the performing,” he said. “And even more is happening now, after this. Things are really pretty good.”