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Preserving the Sosso Bala

Bala TiguiThe balafon is a West African ancestor of the marimba. In the 1200s, the first balafon, known as the Sosso Bala, belonged to the great king Sumanguru Kante, who kept it locked up under the guard of a vulture. A man named Balla Faseke Kouyate convinced the vulture to let him in, and he started to play the Sosso Bala. Upon hearing the music, King Sumanguru, who was very protective of the instrument—if a mosquito landed on it, he would kill it—rushed immediately to the scene. As he listened to Faseke, he became confused, and didn’t know if he was hearing a human or a magical creature. Faseke’s playing was better than the king’s. But it was Faseke’s voice that convinced King Sumanguru to enjoin him to stay. Employed by the king, Faseke became his griot or praise-singer.

Eventually King Sumanguru was defeated in battle by Sundiata Keita, founder of the Empire of Mali. Faseke spent the rest of his life as the griot of Sundiata, who in fact had been his original ruler. . . but that story will have to wait for another day.

Since then, Faseke’s descendants, the Kouyate family, have taken care of the Sosso Bala. Today, the instrument is kept in the town of Niagassola in eastern Guinea, less than 20 miles from the Malian border. In 2001 Unesco recognized it as one of the 19 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In April 2003 Abou Sylla lead a group of us, including Andy Algire and John Kennedy (who play on Dallam-Dougou's "New Destiny"), Ann Falby, Claudia Dery and Saadet Türköz, to visit the Sosso Bala. It was a great honor to be allowed to see the instrument, and we would again like to thank the Kouyate family and the people of Niagassola for their hospitality.

People often ask if the Sosso Bala is kept in a climate-controlled display case. The answer is no. Niagassola is a poor town with no electricity and only three water pumps. My hope is that this CD will help raise interest and support for the Sosso Bala, and a portion of the sale price of this CD will go to the Bala Tigui (the senior guardian of the Sosso Bala) and Niagassola. People interested in helping should contact the Kouyate family in the United States. Fortunately, Balla Kouyate, son of the Bala Tigui, lives in America, where he performs extensively on the balafon.

Alu Niké,
Raul ”Abou Fote”

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