Keïta: Unplugging the balafon master

Aly Keïta plays the balafon at an event in Germany in October last year. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • From an early age, Keïta—who is originally from Mali—was initiated into playing the musical ancestor of the xylophone and the marimba. 

Aly Keïta is testament to the adage of an apple not falling far from a tree. Brought up in a family of griot musicians, the award-winning Ivorian grand master of the balafon could not resist adopting the West African xylophone as his main avenue of musical expression.

Keïta grew up surrounded by traditional instruments like the drums, kora and djembe. He settled for the balafon that’s traditionally played by a griot. He even fashioned his own balafon as a young man and revolutionised the millennium-old instrument later in life.

From an early age, Keïta—who is originally from Mali—was initiated into playing the musical ancestor of the xylophone and the marimba. 

Keïta’s  father—himself a balafon player—did the initiation. Keïta would later study the classical pentatonic balafon with Zouratié Coulibaly in Mali.

“My father was a balafon player, so I grew up with this instrument as a half-brother,” he told Sunday Monitor, adding that the instrument “had always fascinated me.”

Keïta, who has been christened “the King of the Balafon” finds “the sound of the balafon as magical and very authentic to Africa.”

Aly Keïta plays the balafon at the National Theatre in Kampala on September 30, 2022. PHOTO | EDGAR R. BATTE

Born in 1969 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Keïta focuses on traditional African repertoire—particularly jazz, soft pop and African rhythms. His career started in the 1980s when he began playing jazz with Georges Makinto. He was, however, quick to open up to other styles.

Keïta has even developed a diatonic balafon, which he adapted to the requirements of Western music and calibrated to match his style and sound.

The balafon is a West African xylophone that an artisan carefully crafts from particular species of dried wood, 18-21 bars of which are attached to a frame above specific resonating gourds, and strike with special gum-rubber mallets.

There are two kinds of balafons: Fixed key, in which the bars are attached to a frame above buzzing, resonating gourds; and free-key, in which the bars rest directly on a padded surface.

Jazz junkie

Keïta says he picked particular interest in jazz because “the roots of jazz come from African music in its spiritual diversity.” He also has a soft spot for the genre because “I was discovered by a jazz musician.”

“I am a person who is often very curious, and it is by this curiosity that I would like to develop and revolutionise this traditional African instrument in a perfectionist way to my own choice of ability,” he said of his fusion of African rhythms with Western jazz and soft pop.

Keïta insists that “it is essential that griots always play their role in traditional society.” He further describes the griot as “a character who plays a very important social role.” 

His status, he adds: “Makes him the most enlightened and closest advisor to the king, the prince or the traditional customary chief.”

Keïta relocated to Germany as an adult. He lives in Berlin and combines musical worlds with impressive virtuosity.  He leads the group The Balankan (with Hannes Kies, saxophone, Benedikt Stehle, drums, Arcadius, bass).

Keïta has released a number of albums that include: Pangea - 4 Steps In 7 (2004), Akwaba Iniséné (2007), Farafinko (2010), Kalo-Yele (by Aly Keïta, Jan Galega Brönnimann, Lucas Niggli, 2015), Peace in the World (by Guo Gan, Aly Keïta, 2017), and Kalan Teban (by Aly Keïta, Jan Galega Brönnimann, Lucas Niggli, 2020). He has also featured in a number of compilations by other artists.

A virtuoso

He has shared the stage with Omar Sosa, Joe Zawinul, Rhoda Scott, Paco Séry, Karim Ziad, Trilok Gurtu, Amadou and Mariam, Jan Garbarek, Pharoah Sanders, Paolo Fresu, Etienne M’Bappé, Linley Marthe, Matthew Garrison, Dr L. Subramaniam, Rokia Traoré, Cheick Tidiane Seck, Talib Kibwe, Philippe Sellam/Gilles Renne, Adepo Yapo, Camel Zekri, Rhoda Scott, Masahiro Sayama, Jean-Philippe Rykiel, and Majid Bekkas, among others.

Keïta is also currently involved with The Aly Keïta Trio Project with the Dutch master on drums Marcel van Cleef and the virtuosi and funky bass player Roberto Badoglio from Italy. 

All three musicians are based in Berlin, where they met each other in the jazz scene. They are combining the West African balafon music with funky, jazzy danceable grooves.

Keïta was recently awarded the Deutscher Jazz Preis (German Jazz Award) 2022 (Special Instruments). In its citation the German institution Deutscher Jazz Preis said: “…Finding a balafonist of the calibre of Aly Keïta in the world today is a challenge, and not the least. Aly Keïta on stage, it is beauty, elegance and efficiency that express themselves, giving the balafon all its grandeur, its relevance and arousing its interest. He is an authority expressing himself. By his intelligence and his assiduity at work.”

“Aly Keïta is the one who, better than anyone else, has been able to decompartmentalise the balafon, opening it up to other rhythms and making it a ‘classical’ instrument today, despite the certain requirements of order, shall we say, of African spirituality that it demands. Aly Keïta is not a virtuoso for nothing! A victory that is not only for the instrument: It is more that of a man who has been able to tame it and adapt it to almost all musical genres,” the citation reads further.

Keïta in Uganda

Alliance Française Kampala (AFK) presented Habib Koité, Joel Sebunjo, and Aly Keïta in a unique concert titled “Ganda Mandingo Syndicate” at the National Theatre in Kampala on September 30, 2022.

With more than 20 years of experience and touring all over the world, the three artistes put on quite the show. After spending a week in residence together in Kampala, they created a concert where their West African and East African music merged to create new sounds.

At the pulsating explosive one-hour and 49 minutes concert, the audience experienced the unforgettable rhythms of flamenco, blues, Mandingo, jazz, traditional music and more from West and East Africa presented by the three internationally renowned magnificent artists.

Koité playing the guitar opened the concert with his hit Kharifa accompanied by his band with Keïta on the balafon and Sebunjo on akadongo (thumb piano/akogo/kalimba/mbira/sansa/likende). Koité’s second song was Imada.

Sebunjo on vocals and endongo (a traditional Ugandan eight-stringed bow-lyre) gave the show a local feel with his song Empale Ya Kadde off his 2015 album I Speak Luganda.

Koité then performed L A off his 2015 album “Soo” that attracted the audience to sing and dance along.

On his spectacular swirling balafon Keïta mesmerised the audience with his songs Farafinko and Marie danse.

After the trio had played Koité’s song Kunfeta at 22:12pm and bowed out the audience that was enjoying the show requested for more by chanting: “We want more.” “We want more.”

The three artistes then did the final act when they returned to the stage with the rendition of the original popular love song Malaika by Tanzanian musician Adam Salim.

“Traditional Ganda and Mandingo rhythms are at the crossroads because music has no borders, and traditional rhythms in Africa remain one of the richest and strongest in all current music,” Keïta would later say when asked about what the traditional Ganda and Mandingo rhythms have in common.

Shared heritage

According to Sebunjo, the Mande people of West Africa and the Ganda of East Africa share a lot in common in regard to the contextualisation and position of music in the society.

“For decades music, instruments and musicians have been at the forefront of shaping these two empires,” Sebunjo said, adding: “The delis or Jalis among the Mande, the Badongo ba Kabaka in Buganda for centuries have been regarded as the prophets, advisors, thinkers and not forgetting the custodians of history and literature.”

Keïta, who was on his third visit to Uganda, said he “discovered Ugandan music for the first time through Mr Geoffrey Oryema. He describes Uganda music as “a very rich and really melancholic music.”

Keïta acknowledges that it is easier for African musicians to tour in the West than in Africa, because the business system in the Global North is very open and efficient to all kinds of arts. “Westerners are also curious and very passionate about discovering other cultures that are not their own.”

The balafonist relaxes by listening to good music. Nothing, he says, “easily relaxes me after a busy day of work than the happiness of a beautiful musical collaboration.”