Six years ago during my second year of studying Popular Music and Recording at Salford University, I opted to do a module called ethnomusicology. Without any real understanding of the term, on a whim I chose to study the djembe not really knowing what to expect or what the outcome might be, all the while knowing I’d have fun and learn a lot along the way. By the time the module came to an end I had well and truly caught the bug: West African Percussion. It became everything to me, sending me off head first into a lifelong journey of musical learning, trips to East and West Africa, a band that has become a family and a passion that has and will continue to shape every aspect of my life forever.
Shortly after graduating I planned a trip to Senegal with a a friend I had made through the Manchester drumming scene, Mr Sens Sagna, to his home in Abene in the Cassamance region of the south. I found a peaceful paradise with palm trees, beaches, sun and many wonderful musicians. I was there to learn djembe and some West African dance primarily. The djembe teacher brought a whole band with him and it was then that I first heard the balafon. I had never come across a griot musician before and I was immediately mesmerised and fascinated by his playing. I remember he was called Lamine but I never knew his family name. Eagerly, I asked to try my hand at it so I sat down and worked out what scale it was tuned to. He saw that I already had an understanding of music to build upon and so we quickly arranged some lessons. Sat under the trees at the bottom of the garden I had my first lesson. He spoke no English and I spoke no French. There wasn’t a lot of time but I learnt a handful of accompaniments by listening and copying and a spark was ignited within. After a long negotiation and a price that got lower and lower I was eventually convinced it was a good idea to buy his balafon and bring it home with me. Nervously, I wrapped it up in cardboard, rice bags and tape with clothes and towels stuffed in every crevice for as much protection as possible. I prayed it would make it back to the UK unharmed.
Upon my return I joined a band called Tanante with the drummers I had started to study djembe with. Over the next three years I played some balafon using the small amount I had learnt with Lamine but mostly dunduns (bass drums) and other percussion instruments. Over time I learnt a little more on the balafon, a piece off youtube here, an accompaniment from a friend who knew a little there, albeit still only amounting to a handful of pieces and never with any technique guidance. I knew how much I loved the instrument and I craved more and more but there was just no one in the UK I could find to study with. Whenever I played I felt I was a fraud making up my own technique and getting into bad habits. Something had to change.
It was by chance I scrolled past a facebook post from Holly Marland, a previous Finzi scholar and a fellow enthusiast of West African music, encouraging people to apply for the Finzi scholarship. I really didn’t expect to get an interview but I thought it couldn’t hurt to send off an application. Having not heard anything for a little while it was a fantastic surprise when I returned from a work trip to Sudan playing dunduns to find a letter waiting for me with an invitation to London for an interview inside. I set about building on my existing plans, initially sourcing a teacher in West Africa, where I could immerse myself in the culture and home of the music. I spoke with several players who had been recommended by friends from that area and the conversations were difficult. Generally people weren’t so keen on having me live with them for a month and suggested a hotel. I knew this would end up being quite difficult and costly. The feeling of being alone in Guinea with barely any knowledge of French was a little scary and I had been told that it wasn’t the safest place to be as a lone western traveller to say the least in the current climate. Upon mentioning my plans an Italian friend told me about a balafon player who he had met back home who had been nicknamed ‘the Mozart of malinke balafon’. A man called Sory Diabate from Conakry, Guinea who resided in Lyon, France. As soon as Sory and I spoke on Skype I felt so positive and excited about the potential arrangement. He was so happy that I wanted to learn with him and that I wanted to play his instrument. He offered different solutions to help me work within the budget I expected to have available. I felt like we were friends from that moment.
Sory and I spoke many times and I explained that what I really wanted was to go right from the start and have my faulted technique properly corrected. He laughed when I told him that I was happy for the tuition to be like military training. I invited him to take on the role of a drill sergeant and push me towards absolute precision and accuracy. Apparently I was only the second student of his who had asked for that which, I think, he found encouraging. He explained how he could give me material that I might not be able to play perfectly whilst I was there but I could continue to work on it on my return and it would be a foundation to build upon. The excitement kept building as the trip drew closer and although I knew I would learn so much with Sory, more than anything I knew that this was really just the beginning of a lifelong journey of musical learning.
I arrived on a Sunday night to what could have been a standard April evening in Manchester. Wet, cold and glum. Sory was waiting for me at the airport and when we met I had practised how to say it’s nice to see you. We exchanged a few bits of each other’s language that we could manage, looked at some photos on our phones and then quickly gave up trying to converse… After about four trains and a stop at a takeaway we finally arrived at the place where I was going to live at for the next month.
My host, a friend of Sory’s wife, was a woman called Aicha Camara, also from Conakry, Guinea. She spoke absolutely no English which was a perfect way to force me to speak French. And that I did. Slowly, slowly, petite a petit. Aicha was very welcoming and provided more than I expected including some lovely cooked meals and a friendly smile to come home to everyday. We always tried to talk using Google translate and she explained that she had separated from her husband and had been looking forward to the company of a houseguest. I tried my best to be a polite guest, keeping the place tidy and cooked her some of the best meals I could make. I tried to teach her bits of English to much amusement. A simple phrase like ‘I am from Guinea’ turned out to be a mammoth task! My best trick was singing the songs I knew in Sussou (her ethnic group) to her which made her clap, sing and smile in an instant.
On the first morning after a long sleep Sory came to collect me and we travelled together to Centre Afromundo, ran by lady called Marion who, from what I could gather, loved african arts and had devoted her time to running a place where african artists could gather and teach their ways. Sory had many balafons there and every single one was a bespoke beautiful instrument. We sat down facing each other with a balafon each and he looked at me as if to say ‘Ok, play something…’ I played him some of the few pieces I knew and for the ones I had learnt with Lamine, he put his hands together and bowed his head making a clear indication of respect for what he had shown me. Out of the rest he picked out Guinee Fare, a Sussou piece I had worked out from a video of Lamine playing with some friends in Senegal. He saw something wasn’t right and set about correcting me. Immediately he showed me phrases, new accompaniments and fills. All of which were beautiful and although they weren’t malinke I was more than happy to learn them.
I quickly managed to get the message across that initially I wanted to do exercises that would improve my playing. The balafon is usually in C major, starting and ending on G with a three octave range. So, he made me play two notes of a C major chord, moving up in diads through the chord after one bar. C and E, E and G, G and C and upwards etc. Whilst doing this he held my arms to my sides forcing me to use my wrists. He kept shaking his wrists at me, demonstrating the floppy movement. Whilst doing this I had to look forward, not down at the keys. Trying to learn the space between the notes by predicting the movement was and still is incredibly difficult. Another exercise was based on arpeggios. Beginning with a C major chord I had to play C with my left hand, E with my right, G with my left and the octave of C with my right. I realised whilst watching him demonstrate this that the trick is to keep your arm and shoulders still and move your wrist from side to side to achieve that leap with speed and without wasting too much energy. This developed into moving the arpeggios upwards through the scale. I was made to go fast then slow then fast then slow and so on. All of this was exactly what I had hoped for and I could see how through repetition I would really begin to understand his approach.
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Up next came the first bit of malinke gold. Sory started to teach me a new piece: Nankoumandjan. A beautiful malinke rhythm with a long free time introduction. The intro had a long roll and Sory explained how you have to glide across the instrument using a swishing sound and moving his hands from side to side. A lot of the messages were put across like this in a gestural way or using sounds to explain his point. After learning the first accompaniment I watched how when Sory played it there was so much more detail and intricacy. His left hand played accompaniment whilst the right plays counter melodies. I asked to learn what he was playing and just about grasped the beginnings of it that day but it was the most complicated thing I had ever attempted and after a long day and a sore back my brain was overloaded so we stopped there. I realised it was going to be a challenge to keep up the pace over such a long period of time with such long days. After giving it some thought I thought a good solution would be to learn new material in the morning when I could really focus and then follow up with technique exercises in the afternoon.
The rest of the week continued like this with new material and exercises. I was constantly drilled and I got very, very sore. Every part of my body ached so much that when I came to my first weekend I stayed at home and did nothing but write a blog and lie on the couch. I craved a bath but there was no more than a shower that went cold after one minute every time I used it. Blogging became a great way to stay connected with friends and other musicians who were aware of my studies. It also helped me to process everything that was happening and record my thoughts and understandings as they began to develop.
At the end of the first week the aspect I possibly found the hardest was to stay positive when I was making mistakes and struggling with the difficult things I had been taught. The standard was really high at the Centre Afromundo and I was constantly surrounded by phenomenal musicians, African and European, who were subjected to me playing a single phrase over and over and over. Towards the end of the day when I was tired and struggling my head would start to drift and I couldn’t help but think “Am I actually really bad? Are they talking about me in French? What does Sory think of me?” Determined not to let this take over I smiled, tried to shake it off and remember it was just silly paranoia.
Continuing into the second week the painful journey of technique development was almost over the hill. In the process of trying to figure out exactly what Sory was trying to get across I had hurt my wrist and had to take it easy, though I didn’t dare take any time off. I was really getting into the swing of learning things at this point and everyday we started not just with the arpeggio exercises but a short piece that contained different techniques. I would play the exercise with an accompaniment from Sory and he would solo in the gaps. It became the warm up routine and I still play it in my practise almost everyday.
At this point I got the chance to watch Sory’s younger brother, Alsenny, tune the slats on a balafon. We walked around town and visited two shops to buy a guitar tuner despite me showing him the tuner on my phone. I realised once he was tuning (judging by the look of surprise on his face that my tuner showed the same pitch as the one he bought) that he just didn’t trust it! Using an adze and a plane he chopped and shaved bits off the underneath of the slat to get the correct pitch. Taking away mass from the middle to flatten the sound and from the edge to sharpen. He explained that the adze is to take big leaps in pitch and the plane to fine tune. Making sure to turn each one upside down and working on both edges he made all the changes even and consistent. I asked if I could try my hand at tuning but I wasn’t allowed. Instead I took notes and videos to reference at a later date. I couldn’t understand why he was tuning the F notes to F# until a while later Sory explained that this balafon was for a concert where he was accompanying the Kora which is often tuned to G major.
For the first time that week I felt a bit lonely, I’d had a bit of a bad day got annoyed with Sory for doing other things and leaving me to practise for a bit too long instead of teaching me. I explained that I wasn’t happy with this and he apologised but it felt a little uncomfortable for the rest of the day. I was drained and getting tired of the routine of going to lessons, arriving home late and eating alone with not much more to show for the whole experience. As I sat alone in my little room writing about this I have to admit I shed a few tears. The next day a nice evening prompted me to do something about it so I ventured out into Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon). Wondering around the wonky cobbled streets I spotted the cathedral way above the city and headed in it’s direction, enjoying not knowing where I was going. After walking up about a million steps I found this magnificent beautiful old building with a terrace in front of it and stunning views over the entire city and beyond. Arriving just before sunset I watched Lyon turn from day to night and stood there alone for about half an hour smiling to myself, feeling totally and utterly content. After that point I didn’t even come close to feeling lonely again.
I played in a dance class with Sory one night that week which was a real test.. At first he just started playing something simple whilst he taught a song to the dancers and looked at me to say copy this. I tried but I couldn’t help but feel nervous in front of everybody and I tensed up and made a bit of a hash of it. I can listen and copy djembe or dundun parts but I need a bit of explanation for balafon. After that piece Sory shook his head in disappointment. However he came over and showed me the next one before anyone started playing anything and reminded me to relax and keep it all in the wrists. As expected it went really fast straight away yet, I relaxed, breathed deeply and concentrated on the technique and it worked. I managed to keep the pace, didn’t tense up at all and felt great for doing so. I got a smile and a nod of approval from Sory too. After the slight altercation earlier that week there was a definite understanding of expectations at this point and the lessons were thorough and full. From here on when I was left alone there was a time set to practise something and a check that everything was ok. This created a really positive atmosphere and we were having loads of fun together in the lessons. The learning seemed to increase exponentially as we went along. The more I learnt, the better I played. The better I played, the more I learnt. My wrist started to feel ok quickly after some rest and I could focus right to the end of the day. The routine continued delightfully like this into the third week and I felt like a sponge, soaking it all up day by day. My journeys around the city flew by as I scribbled away everything I could remember from the day onto manuscript paper. This really helped understand what I had learnt and also ensure that with the vast amount of material I was taking in, none would be forgotten.
Filled with positivity from everything that was happening and perfect weather I enjoyed a weekend of sight seeing and travelling around in the city on the third weekend. I was fearful of running out of time so I did as much as I could: a boat trip into Vieux Lyon, a whiskey tasting menu in the old town, a trail around the city taking pictures of street art and a trip to the biggest park around with a zoo inside it. I really fell in love with the place at this point. My french and my local geography, though still very limited, was getting better and I was able to have small interactions and wonder around without feeling completely lost. On a sunny Saturday afternoon I stopped down by the river with my feet dangling in the water and couldn’t help but just sit and smile endlessly at how lucky I was to be there living this experience and how well it was going. I had always joked to friends about a dream that maybe some day someone would pay me to do nothing but play music all day… Somehow miraculously this had come true!
During our discussions before I had arrived I requested to learn about tuning, maintenance and the construction of the instrument. The balafon I owned was lovely but the tuning wasn’t perfect, some of the string had snapped causing the keys to become loose and despite experimenting I could never get the gourds underneath to buzz in the authentic way I had heard before. Learning about this was possibly one of the most exciting bits as there was nothing about it online and nobody I knew, even other west African musicians in Manchester, knew how to approach it. So being able to obtain such a precious skill like this, especially straight from a griot descended from the Diabate lineage, felt like an extremely privileged position to be in. I kept thinking about how ancient this instrument’s history is and how long these traditions have been passed down from father to son. And now to me.
I decided to put aside two days during the final week to make sure we covered all aspects of maintenance and construction so I could eventually work on my own balafon. Sory brought a balafon round to my place so we could do it in the comfort of the living room away from the noise of the centre. He was very thorough in showing me everything. How to untie and redo every single knot, how to sit, which hand to use for which application. The tying of the keys to the frame is an exerting and extremely tricky process. Two lengths of string run across the top and bottom the keys. At the left hand side of the instrument (where the lowest note is), the two lengths of string are tied to two posts then eight loops are made around the key, two knots are tied underneath, you tie it to the frame, then you repeat the process on the other side of the key. After this you take the slack and move onto the next key. Each set of loops is tied at the node of the key to make sure it rings with the correct sustain. The hardest part is a technique in which you wrap the string round different fingers and pull whilst nudging the loops with your thumb to make sure that they are all very tight. Every single knot and loop has to be incredibly tight and Sory kept repeating “tiré, tiré” and pulling at my work to check it was satisfactory. After the first day he set me the task of tying two keys on by myself without supervision. If in the morning, they were acceptable, then we would continue. If not, we would take them off and repeat the process. Amazingly, he was impressed with my work when we started the next day! Prior to this during lessons we took a break from studies and he showed me how to tie the gourds on underneath (each note has a gourd or fruit shell under it tuned to the pitch of the key which helps to resonate the sound) and that the membrane that covers the holes in the gourds has to be thin and stretched very tight to achieve the buzzing sound. Interestingly, the holes in the gourds were traditionally covered with spider’s egg sacks. The buzzing sound is a fairly modern concept that has come from the use of plastic to cover the holes. I took notes and videos of every last instruction explaining things as we filmed, knowing that the amount of detail and intricacy in the process was too much to remember in one go.
Every time I learnt a new piece I asked about the song and was told “aprés, aprés.” So, I requested we spent one of the final days learning the songs for all the pieces I had learnt. I requested, as was my aim from the start, to know the entire piece in detail: accompaniments, melodies, songs with their translations and their histories and functions in celebrations. Sadly, this was the one goal I didn’t manage to achieve entirely. When the day arrived all that was offered was the phonetics of the song’s words and some tracks and videos as references. I asked for more and for variations but to no avail. As a Malinke griot I expected Sory would have a wealth of knowledge when it came to the oral histories of the Malinke people but I was met with a challenging factor. Although his father is Malinke, his mother is Sussou and he was raised in a Sussou area in Conakry, thus, that’s the language he grew up with, as well as French. So when the time came for me to ask the many questions I had about songs, meanings and histories I was met with the honest response that he just didn’t know. I can’t deny there was a serious sense of disappointment when I realised this yet in hindsight I see that the benefits of the experience far outweighed what was lacking from it. I salvaged as much as I could and recorded Sory singing whilst I played accompaniment so I at least had an authentic and personal reference to listen to rather than the YouTube videos or mp3s he had provided. I sat down with a friend of his and recorded some translations to meanings that he could tell me for a couple of Sussou songs that I had looked at. He made a point of saying how people often mistakenly think there is more weight to a song than there actually is. Though I can appreciate how this can be applied to some of the shorter songs I’m sure there is a lot more to many songs and I am determined to find it as my learning continues.
With the help of his friend translating I learnt how he started at the age of seven and by the time he was twelve he was in demand as a soloist playing at ceremonies around his area. He explained how the real name is bala and that the word balafon came later (this must be from the term idiophone that we use to categorise this instrument in ethnomusicology). The term bala comes from the very first player of the instrument Bala Faséké Kouyaté. He told me the interesting story of how Bala became the first owner and how the Kouyate family are forever the owners of the balafon. He advised me to read about the Sunjiata kingdom to know more about the history of the insrument. I also learnt, perhaps the most interesting fact, that the modal scales that balafons and koras are often tuned to are only the result of collaborations with western musicians over the last few decades. Up until very recently the instruments were tuned using very different traditional scales. I had always assumed that the two different cultures (and many others) used modal scales as they were invented in ancient Greece and had made their way around the world. Sory only started using western scales in 1997 and said that he wasn’t comfortable last time he played on a traditionally tuned balafon. After I returned I read that the very first balafon, believed to be the one owned and played by Bala Faséké Kouyaté, still exists and is kept in Mali where it is only brought out to be played on special occasions and to tune other balafons to it’s scale.
I reached a point near to the end, having learnt mostly Malinke pieces, some Sussou ones and a Mandinka piece too, that a more appropriate title may have been ‘An exploration of Madingue Balafon.’ An all encompassing study of the mix of musical styles that most West Africans play and how it is important to be aware of all of them rather than narrow my studies to one particular ethnic grouping. I felt that this was the result of my experience and I am eager to learn many different styles of balafon now which I think will have the most positive impact on my playing. I have Malinke pieces to go with the traditional rhythms we play in our group and Sussou pieces which are more suited to stage performances that will be useful to play with a dance group we have recently collaborated with. I am now very interested to learn more Mandinka pieces which, I believe, have longer songs with numerous verses and are often played at a much slower tempo. The more versatile I can be, the better I will be able to play each style and the more I can collaborate with other musicians playing these varying styles.
Whilst having this translated discussion with Sory I asked him many questions including his best advice for me from here on. Out of many things, the most important one he stressed was what he took from his father: courage. He told me that I was a balafon player now and that I had to go forward with the courage and confidence of someone who owns their instrument. Along with the tremendous amount that I learnt from him this resulted in such a strong feeling of worth when I left that will never leave me. Sory helped to set me off on a continuous journey and when I left him I knew that it was very much the end of the beginning. I could liken it to feeling like a newly qualified driver: nervous and unexperienced yet excited and itchy to get behind the wheel every day. I am doing exactly that. I made a promise to myself and to Sory that I would practise every day without fail (I might have missed two or three since Lyon but the hours definitely make up the very few non practise days!). I feel like I’ve made almost as much progress back home as I did during my studies. I practise everything he taught me and I make up new exercises for myself all the time. On the day before I left I went to buy souvenirs for my family and wonder around for the last time. It was another perfect sunny day and on one of the many bridges that crossed the two rivers of the city I sat smiling on a wall watching the water and the boats go past and said goodbye to Lyon.
Since returning I have acquired four students and counting, tuned and successfully reassembled two balafons (a pentatonic one and a diatonic one kindly donated by a friend who owned these that were out of tune), played balafon at several gigs, festivals and a wedding with my band Tanante this summer and played in schools during percussion workshops with Drumroots. Eventually, when funds allow I intend to buy ten balafons on a trip to West Africa and start going to schools and festivals leading my own balafon workshops. It’s now been a few months since I came home and I’m already making plans to return very soon to have more lessons with Sory. I’d like to make it an annual trip to continuously build on what he started. The experience has left me with so much inspiration and an unquenchable thirst for more. I’m also discussing post graduate work in ethnomusicology with a tutor from Salford, Jostine Loubser, who has helped me to realised the absolute potential of this scholarship. As well as planning a return trip to Lyon I’ve booked a trip to the Gambia with a previous Finzi scholar, Holly Marland, in January 2017 to complete a joint Kora and balafon study trip. This is a very exciting prospect for a few reasons. Yusupha, a player who Holly has recommended, speaks good english and will be able to give me a much clearer picture of the history of the instrument. Also, as I mentioned before, I would really like to look at the slower style of Mandinka balafon, usually accompanied by longer more detailed songs and be able to obtain complete translations and finally I will get the chance to set out plans for my next project to come. I have decided to live in Gambia for four to six months at some point over the next two to three years. I realised in Lyon that one month just simply isn’t enough! If I was there for at least four months, immersed in the music, I feel I could take a huge leap forward and come back ten times the player I left behind. If I actually manage to come home that is…
I hope this report has explained how much this experience has meant to me, what it has left me with and what it will surely bring for the future. I can’t ever imagine a time when balafon isn’t a major part of my life and I hope I can help others by opening the door to this fascinating world of music and bring joy to their lives. I have so much gratitude for the Finzi Trust for granting me such an incredible opportunity. I simply can’t thank them enough for what they have done for my life. I would also like to pay special thanks to two close friends and band mates Sebastian Labeyé and John Tullo for their endless translations of messages, phone calls and Skype calls with Sory and other potential tutors prior to the trip. To Holly Marland for making me aware of the scholarship and her help and advice on everything during the process. To Gemma Moss for her linguistic expertise that helped my application be the best that it could be. To Phil Brissenden for supporting my application. To Jostine Loubser for opening my eyes to what this could lead to in academic terms and far reaching influence. To Jamie Riley for donating balafons for me to practise tuning on and to everyone in Tanante for being inspiring musicians and great friends to forever learn with. To my friends and family for their continued love and support in all that I do. Finally to the incredible Sory Diabate for being such an inspiration and a wonderful teacher, we will meet again.
PS- As a special thank you to the Finzi Trust I filmed this short video of my favourite piece from Sory: Nankoumandjan. For the performance I collaborated with a previous Finzi scholar Holly Marland, a fantastic djembe player, all round percussionist and performer Jamie Riley from Tanante and Ian Snailham my first balafon student. Thanks to Studio Z, a local Manchester Recording Studio, for such a great job on the video and sound recording and mixing. Apologies for the fact that my balafon is a bit out of tune, the summer has been so busy with gigs and festivals that I had not been able to take it apart and tune it before filming this. It is now my current project!