The Boston Phoenix October 5 - 13, 2000

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Kora king

Balla Tounkara, the griot of Boston

Cellars by Starlight by Banning Eyre

It's another Sunday night at the Middle East, and upstairs in the Bakery, people are dancing. They're shouting support to the musicians, a tight, propulsive combo led by a young Malian musician who plays the traditional 21-string harp known as the kora. For more than a year, Balla Tounkara has been holding court here on Sunday nights, and the gig is working. I spent some years playing with African and other like-minded musicians who were trying to build an audience for African music in Boston. I used to play this very venue with American kora player David Gilden of, and we had some good nights, but nothing like this. The crowd's exuberant, end-of-the-weekend energy surges as Tounkara's ensemble lashes out nonstop rhythm. People used to call Gilden the "griot of Boston" -- a reference to the musical bards of West Africa -- but today it's Tounkara who's laid claim to that title.

I first met Tounkara in 1995, in the Malian capital of Bamako, and I had no idea he had this in him. I was studying guitar with his uncle, Djelimady Tounkara, lead-guitarist of the Super Rail Band and for me the greatest guitarist in Africa. It was after a family wedding at the end of a long day of music in the dusty street by the Tounkara household that Balla approached me with his kora. He had been eyeing my recording gear -- he wanted me to help him record his music. "I've got good songs," he told me in French, the only language we shared. "I want to mix the kora with other instruments -- guitar, keyboards, bass. I want to put the kora into blues, jazz, funk, everything!"

At the time I was more interested in folklore than fusion. So when he took up his kora hoping to show me the music in his head, I missed it all: the kora technique, the clear-eyed vision, and, most of all, a gorgeous singing voice with range and subtlety that approached the timbre and emotional impact of Mali's best known singer, Salif Keita. Polite but clueless, I blew him off.

No hard feelings, Tounkara tells me in near-perfect English when we sit down in his Allston apartment one Sunday afternoon. As it turns out, he did just fine without me.

Tounkara was born in a village called Boudefo, near Kita, a renowned center for griot arts. "The family of Tounkara is small. We all come from one guy, Magandianyoule." He explains that the family patriarch had played a key role in the founding of the Malian Empire, 800 years ago. In Mali, that's heavy karma. "So Boudefo is one family -- Tounkara. If somebody has another name, it comes from the mother's side. My grandfather is a djelifili, chief of the griots. He's 116."

Tounkara's other grandfather was the late Batourou Sekou Kouyaté, one of the most respected kora players of the 20th century. Tounkara grew up playing drums: the doundoun, djembe, and tama (talking drum) -- "like every kid in Kita." He became serious about kora as a teenager, after he'd moved to Bamako. Tounkara practiced the demanding harp the way he does everything -- with ferocious determination. "Sometimes my grandfather got mad at me because I was so curious. When he was not around, I'd come and take his kora and play for 10, 15 hours. Then I got my little kora, and I'd go in my room and play until five in the morning. People got tired of me."

By the time of our first meeting, Tounkara had played enough street weddings to know that traditional music was not his true calling. "I learned the tradition. That's who I am, but I wanted to have my own experience. In my room, I was always listening to other music: Bob Marley, Diana Ross, John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Tina Turner, Tracy Chapman, Beatles, Pink Floyd, Manfred Mann, the Police. My grandfather told me the kora could play anything. He played the national anthems of France, United States, Guinea, and Mali. `Okay,' I said, `he did these things. Why can't I?' "

Tounkara tuned his kora to pop-music tapes and learned to accompany them. He nagged professional musicians like his uncle to teach him the names of notes and chords, and then he found them on his kora. With instinctive faith, he prepared himself for a career he could only imagine.

Then in 1996, he had a life-changing experience. His uncle took him to a soirée at the home of Babani Sissoko, at the time one of the wealthiest men in Mali and certainly its most generous arts patron. Tounkara got his chance when his uncle began to play one of the bulwarks of the griot repertoire, "Sunjata," the story of the first king of the Malian Empire. "I just sang for five minutes, and Babani said, `One minute. Who is this boy?' And he just stopped the music and wrote out a check for $12,000." Soon afterward, Tounkara was on a plane bound for the United States.

As impressive as any part of his story is the way he handled himself once in New York. A number of griot musicians live there, but even Africa-minded New Yorkers rarely cross paths with them since they perform almost exclusively at private West African gatherings. For Tounkara, this lifestyle defeats the purpose of traveling to America. "There are Malians who have been here five, six years, and they still don't speak English. I come with my passion, but in this country, you have to speak English."

While pursuing language studies, Tounkara discovered Greenwich Village. "I just took my kora in the snow. I took the train to the Village. People said, `Wow, what is this?' `It's a kora.' `Oh. Want to jam?' Some people humiliated me. `You can't play the funky music with that.' I said, `Just plug me in and see what I can do.' In one month, I got famous in the Village. Everybody want to play with me."

After eight months, Tounkara came to Boston, where a friend from Bamako, percussionist Joh Camara was living, and he began to teach and perform. He managed to snag a visiting Malian guitarist, Modibo Diabaté, and record a set of traditional griot songs with just kora and guitar. This became his first CD, Music from Mali, West Africa, which he placed in Tower Records and sold while playing on the street in Harvard Square. All the while, Tounkara was meeting musicians, sitting in, jamming, listening, learning, teaching, gigging, and saving money to make a more ambitious recording. "It was tough. But my parents were not lazy people. They taught me you don't let people take you down. You can always stand up for yourself. So I was playing in the T in winter. Christmas. I was playing `Jingle Bells' on the kora. If I save a little money, I go to studio. I record a little bit. If I am out of money, I leave it for months."

Tounkara ultimately completed his CD, and he released it himself this year. Be Right is a set of 10 diverse, well-executed tracks. Wesley Wirth, a local bass player and a veteran of numerous African music projects, helped him recruit talented support musicians. The CD visits ground familiar to Malian pop, combining the griot classic "Massane Cisse" with a slow blues riff, revving Guinea's venerable Latin-flavored pop up to muscular, sensuous funk ("Lemeneya," or "Strong Heart"), and morphing a slow griot melody into a rock anthem, à la Salif Keita ("Kelemagni" or "War"). Griot songs have powerful melodies but lack universal dance rhythms, and that presents a problem for musicians who want to turn this music into pop. Too often griot singers settle for stately but stiff drum-machine accompaniment -- one reason you don't hear much griot pop in African discos. Tounkara weaves his kora and vocal melodies into backbeat funk, swing, a techno groove, and even ragamuffin pop. In short, Be Right realizes the crossover dream he described to me that faraway evening in Bamako.

It's time to go to the Middle East. Tounkara insists that I sit in on guitar for a few songs. He coaches me on a couple of his compositions and arrangements, naming the chords and rhythms as if he'd gone to Berklee. His basic group that night is a quartet with Wirth on bass, Camara on djembe, and a young drummer named Eric Doob who plays with astounding energy and precision, even doubling Camara perfectly on traditional djembe patterns. The selections are relentlessly upbeat, playing more to Tounkara's powerful voice than to his kora chops, which would come through better in a more subdued setting.

But the crowd is in his hands from the start. Whether it's funky kora blues, driving soukous-tinged Afropop, or innovative covers of Afropop hits, the group command attention and respect. Kenyan singer Sali Oyugi joins in on a few songs, notably Tounkara's elaborate composition in memory of slain Guinean street vendor Amadou Diallo and a hard funk cover of the Fela Kuti classic "Lady." Poet John Sinclair of New Orleans, who performs occasionally with Tounkara in the group Vox Pop, reads a poem evoking the life of Robert Johnson over the bluesy finale. At closing time, neither the band nor the crowd wants to leave. The griot of Boston has triumphed once again.

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