El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyate

 

El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyaté was born in Kindia, Guinea in 1918 and is a descendant of the legendary Bala Fasséké Kouyaté, Sunjata's djeli. Many members of his extended family have been musicians: two of his brothers were djelis at the court of King Nalotaye in Katandé and Sory Kandia Kouyaté, the renowned Guinean djeli singer, was also a direct relative. Djeli Sory Kouyaté received his first bala at the age 12 and dedicated his life to mastering the instrument. In 1961, he joined the National Instrumental Ensemble and, while on tour in the United States, he and the other members of the ensemble met Harry Belafonte, an encounter that led to the formation of the Djoliba Ballet. In addition to an extended stint with Djoliba, Djeli Sory Kouyaté was named Director of the National Choral and Instrumental Ensemble in 1982. A veteran of numerous international tours, including "Africa Oyé" in 1989, he also accompanied Sory Kandia Kouyaté in many performances.

The bala is one of the oldest of the djeli instruments and Mande balafon music gets its unique sound from several factors. First, the tuning of Mande balafons roughly approximates an equidistant heptatonic scale, which, without entering into the technical details, creates a sound very different both from the pentatonic Senufo balafons found in the parts of Mali and in Burkina Faso and from instruments tuned to the Western scales most of us grew up listening to. The second factor is that balafon makers pierce small holes in the resonating gourds of the balafon and cover them with a special type of spider web or cigarette paper. This creates a buzzing mirliton effect, which takes many forms in African music, i.e, soda bottle caps attached to mbira gourds, a strip of rawhide stretched across the head of Ghanian gungons or the metal resonators that are sometimes attached to djembes. A final element is the distinctive sound of Mande melodies, which you may be familiar with in either in the form of kora melodies or the melodies sung to the rhythms of the djembe repertoire.

Djeli Sory Kouyaté recorded these CDs at the age of 73 and the music reflects the sure hand of a mature master. He is accompanied by Touma Moudou Kouyaté on second balafon, Ahmadou Camara on bolon (a large,four-stringed lute), Samba Woury Barry on sokko (a four- stringed violin).Sadio Diallo on buru (a lateral flute) and Makan Camara on tunni (a flute with two tubes and a gourd resonator), who provide a richly textured rhythmic and melodic foundation for Djeli Sory Kouyaté's virtuosity. His play manifests an intimate familiarity with pieces which he has no doubt played countless times yet his approach to the music is altogether fresh and spontaneous. He is an excellent illustration of the notion that fidelity to tradition does not imply stilted, unimaginative musicianship. Quite to the contrary, the djeli bala tradition is a rich source of inspiration from that Djeli Sory Kouyaté extracts abundant emotional and musical creativity.

To give a more concrete description of his playing, the foundation of bala music is "the kumbengo, which is the basic melodic pattern of each piece of music, similar to an ostinato pattern in Western music, but with a broader usage." (Lynne Jessup, The Mandinka Balafon, p.57) The kumbengo are similar to the accompaniment parts one learns for a djembe rhythm. Master bala players often depart from the kumbengo to play "ornamentation or improvisation passages" (Lynne Jessup, The Mandinka Balafon, p.57) called birimintingo. On the different pieces on these CDs, Djeli Sory Kouyaté plays the kumbengo for briefs periods then embarks on long birimintingo passages, alternating rapid ascending and descending runs, repeated motifs and a rich variety of other embellishments, before briefly returning to the kumbengo only to set out on another flight of improvisation. There is no singing on these recordings, just pure instrumental magic. To summarize, this music is more suited for tranquil reverie than frenzied dance, yet this assessment should not blind us to the intense passion that Djeli Sory Kouyaté brings to his music.

All three volumes of "Anthologie du balafon mandingue" are beautifully recorded capturing Djeli Sory Kouyaté's rich tone and every nuance of his play. The liner notes (in French and English) are excellent and contain a brief biography of the musician, the history of the Sosso-Bala, illustrations and descriptions of the instruments played and a short explanation of each song. These three CDs maintain a consistent level of excellence so it is very difficult to recommend any one more highly that the others. One obvious difference is that Volume 3 has longer selections which give Djeli Sory Kouyaté a bit more room to stretch out, but this difference is quite relative because on every track of all three CDs, his improvisational brilliance is amply displayed. One might consider buying Volume 1 for the version of "Bolaba" or Volume 3 for "Lamban", but, in my opinion, these three CDs are of equally high quality.In reference to El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyaté, the liner notes mention that "Some say that in human memory no one has known such virtuosity on balafon in the Mande homeland". To be honest, I don't have the expertise to confirm or challenge this assertion. All I can say is that he is a magnificent musician and that these three CDs contain some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. For bala students, these recordings are every bit as vital as are Mamady Keita's CDs are for the djembe player.

 

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