Keep it in the family
Lansana Kouyaté continues to teach an 800-year family tradition
The soft-spoken Lansana Kouyaté is one of the best-kept secrets in Chico, largely because of his own genuine humbleness. The only reason this writer knew of Kouyaté's world-class status as a musician and of his fascinating family history is that another local musician happened to bring him up in conversation. The word “amazing” came up in that conversation in reference to Kouyaté and in subsequent conversations with people who know him.
A Guinean master balaphone player, drummer and music teacher, Kouyaté spent his first year in the United States in 1991 when he played with a West African music and dance company in Chicago and New York City. He lived and performed in New York, Hawaii and Humboldt County and, after playing a few times and liking the area and the people, moved to Chico in 2001.
“I didn’t speak English when I first came [to the U.S.],” Kouyaté pointed out, shortly before he was due to leave for a two-week musical engagement back in New York. “It was hard. But it was good for me to learn. … When I first lived in New York I rode all the trains to the end stops. Now it’s easy for me to get around New York!”
Kouyaté comes from the village of Boké in the West African country of Guinea. He belongs to the lineage of Bala Fasséké Kouyaté who, 800 years ago, was the griot, or personal poet/praise singer/musician, to Soundjata Keita, king of Mande (all of West Africa at the time).
Kouyaté told the story of how the king invented the bala (later changed to balaphone after French colonization), a xylophone-like instrument made from wood and gourds, which the king kept in a secret place where only he could play it.
“The king who created [the balaphone] used it to help his spirit, to help his heart,” explained Kouyaté, his eyes flashing their customary twinkle. “The first person [besides the king] who touched it was my ancestor [Bala Fasséké Kouyaté]. He actually sneaked behind him [to find it], and when the king was out hunting, my ancestor was playing it. The king heard his playing on the wind and asked, ‘Who is playing? Is it genius or is it human?’ My ancestor answered, ‘It is a human.’ The king told him, ‘You play it better than me. You’d better have it.’ We have had it in my family now for 800 years.”
The Kouyaté family, of which there are many members, has never put the original balaphone given to their ancestor by King Soundjata Keita in a museum.
“Our family can trace its roots this way,” Kouyaté said. “The original instrument is still in my family in Guinea. The person who guards the instrument has to know the history. We are like a library. Other families come to us for [historical] information.”
The 46-year-old Kouyaté, who has a string of CDs to his credit under the series title of Mandeng Djeli ("djeli” translates as “blood"), started learning to play the balaphone at age 2, taught mainly by his grandfather, world-renowned balaphone virtuoso El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyaté, who still tours at age 87.
“There is no other toy in my family,” Kouyaté said. “When you are a baby, you are crawling on it!”
Today, Kouyaté sometimes takes along his 4-year-old budding-musician son Yusef when teaching West African music—drums, songs, culture and dance—at the local Blue Oak Waldorf School, which he does alongside his roommate, drummer/dancer Tania Camara.
“Yusef helps [teach] in my class with the kids. … I try to help the kids [learn to play music] because I know they can do it,” Kouyaté said, acknowledging modestly that when he himself was 4 he “got a lot of compliments” for his musicianship.
Besides playing and teaching balaphone all over the United States (for instance, at Mini-Camp Mandeng in Humboldt County in June and Camp Mandeng in the Mendocino National Forest in August), Kouyat#&233; also knows how to make the instrument he plays.
“I can make [a balaphone] from zero,” Kouyaté said, “but from a different wood that what is traditionally used in Guinea. … In Guinea, we use wood from the khari tree. We don’t use a fresh one. It’s too heavy. We use a tree that has been fallen down for five, 10, 20 years. That’s the kind we want. Also, the traditional balaphone uses a spider egg sac for a resonator over the holes [in the gourds on the underside of the instrument]. Now sometimes we use a light paper.”
Kouyaté informed me that if I wanted a traditional balaphone made from khari wood, he could easily get one from his uncle who makes them back home in Guinea.
“My dad used to make them,” Kouyaté said, “but he passed away.”
Kouyaté pulled out a large stack of photographs from a recent visit that he made, along with several of his local drumming students, to his Guinean village—pictures of family and community members (often one and the same) drumming, dancing and posing for the photographer with beaming, beautiful smiles.
We stopped on one photo of a particularly vibrant, lovely woman playing the same balaphone, head-to-head, opposite Kouyaté (the balaphone can be played from either side, unlike a piano whose keys always have the low notes on the left).
“Ah, that is my younger sister, Fatoumata,” Kouyaté said, smiling proudly. “She plays good!”