PUTNEY — Next Stage Arts presents a concert with Malian balafon player and singer Balla Kouyaté and American cellist, singer, and composer Mike Block, on Sunday, Feb. 5 at 4 p.m. Composer, kora player, percussionist, and vocalist John Hughes opens.
Kouyaté and Block have been collaborating for over a decade, according to a news release, bonding over their shared interest in music from across the world and their commitment to innovating on their instruments.
Kouyaté, who comes from the Djeli tradition of Mali, was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA. Block is a Grammy Award-winning musician with the Silk Road Ensemble, originally trained in Western Classical music.
“Two world-class masters from different continents unite to bring together different musical traditions with Mike and Balla,” Keith Marks, executive director of Next Stage Arts, said in a news release. “Balla was named a World Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and is the heritage keeper of his region’s heritage instrument, the balafon. Mike Block [...] is known in numerous musical circles as a master at the cello. Next Stage is over the moon about presenting these two virtuosic musicians.”
To say that Kouyaté was born into a musical family is an understatement. His family lineage goes back over 800 years to Balla Faséké, the first of an unbroken line of Djelis in the Kouyaté clan. Djelis are the oral historians, musicians, and performers who keep alive and celebrate the history of the Mandé people of Mali, Guinea, and other West African countries.
Kouyaté explains that the word Djeli derives from his Mandinka language, “It means blood and speaks to the central role we play in our society.” One must be born into it. The Kouyaté family is regarded as the original praise-singers of the Malinké people, one of the ethnic groups found across much of West Africa.
In 2001, the Sosso-Bala — a thousand-year-old balafon — was declared an item of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. This powerful symbol of Mande culture, in the care of the Kouyaté family, is brought out once a year for ceremonial playing.
Kouyaté also regularly plays with world-renowned West African musicians who are touring in the States.
He often accompanies kora master Mamadou Diabaté and, in 2004, joined NEA National Heritage Fellow Sidiki Cond Kouyaté for a month-long residency at Carnegie Hall.
Yo-Yo Ma has described Block as the “ideal musician of the 21st Century.” Touring and playing extensively throughout the world with SRE, Block has also contributed arrangements and compositions and earned a Grammy Award in 2017 for SRE’s album, Sing Me Home.
Using the innovative Block Strap, which allows a cellist to stand and move while playing, he was the first cellist to perform while standing at Carnegie Hall. The New York Times characterized the performance as, “Breathless. [...] Half dance, half dare.”
As an educator, Block is described by organizers as passionate about creativity and collaboration, and is the founding director of Silkroad’s Global Musician Workshop and the Mike Block String Camp.
John Hughes is a composer, kora player, percussionist and vocalist whose style crosses myriad cultural boundaries and fuses disparate influences. Playing ancient traditional instruments not often heard in the United States, many of which he builds himself, Hughes “takes his audience on an intimate musical tour of universal expressions of joy and hope that soothe and uplift the spirit,” say organizers.
Also a sculptor, dancer, instrument builder, and educator, Hughes holds a bachelor’s from the Tyler School of Art of Temple University and the West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, England, and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He has studied the music, song, and dance of West Africa for over 28 years, training with numerous master drummers and dancers from Guinea and Mali, including Mamady Keïta and Famoudou Konaté.