by Raul Rothblatt
from Jumbie Journal, April 2005
Last night at a bar in Brooklyn, something important happened. Raul gave Abou Sylla money from Jumbie Records to buy a generator for a small town in rural Guinea. It is worth our time and effort to explain why this matters.
With the help of Abou, Jumbie Records is giving the guardians of the Sosso Bala a generator. The Sosso Bala is the oldest balafon in the world - an 800 year old instrument that has been played and preserved by the Kouyate family in Niagassola, known as the Dokala association. Jumbie Journal readers are probably aware that in 2001 UNESCO declared this instrument one of the 19 "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."
But UNESCO was also explicit in stating the threats facing the Sosso Bala: "The Sosso-Bala and its site are at risk from rural migration, the difficult living conditions in Niagassola, trafficking in artifacts, and frequent fires." And they also suggest an Action Plan: "Proposals include balafon festivals and conferences...."
Luckily, there is going to be an international balafon festival at the end of April. Actually, it may surprise you to hear that there are going to be TWO different xylophone festival featuring the balafon. At the same exact time that Jumbie presents America's first African Xylophone Festival in New York, djelis (a.k.a. griots) from around the world will be gathering in Niagassola. And while they are there, Abou will make an announcement.
Abou knows something about the traditions of the balafon. He is not only widely respected in Guinea for his impressive musical skills, but he is respected by the Dokala association for his role in promoting the Sosso Bala. If you go to Niagassola, know this: you don't just kinda give them some gift like it is some sort of financial transaction. You have to act properly. And in case of giving a generator, you have to do it with a flourish. And Abou knows about flourishes.
So at the end of April, djelis from all around West Africa will know about Jumbie Records. They will know not only that we are aware that Niagassola needs a generator, but that we have taken it upon ourselves to provide it. And they will know that we are doing something about the balafon tradition. We have learned about the instrument, and we are spreading our knowledge.
It seems that everything valuable in the world is vanishing. All sorts of traditions are threatened, from the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan to opera houses in Berlin to CBGBs in the New York. Some of these threats are due to rigid ideologies, some due to rigid financial constraints. The Kouyate family has done an amazing job for 800 years, but poverty is a corrupting force. Niagassola cannot survive if all its young people leave to find work in the big cities. The Sosso Bala will be destroyed if the mud hut that houses it gets hit by lightning. As the centuries pass, this accident becomes more likely.
The Jumbie generator will provide a level of relief for Niagassola. They are protecting an instrument that dates back to the 13th century, so they deserve at least 20th century living standards.
We thank the Dokala association for preserving the Sosso Bala. We thank them for the strength that we get from honoring the Sosso Bala. We thank them for their preservation of one of the masterpieces of humanity. We thank them for preserving an intangible aspect of our humanity.
Elhadj Djeli Sekou Kouyate
the Bala Tigui, senior guardian of the Sosso-Bala