In a delightful fusion of West African traditional music with bluegrass, funk and rock, Malian artist Balla Kouyaté joins up with boundary-defying cellist Mike Block for an evening of effervescent, joyous world music.
Kouyaté and Block have been collaborating for over a decade, bonding over their shared interest in music from across the world, and their commitment to innovating on their instruments. Balla Kouyaté, a balafon player and singer coming out of the Djeli tradition of Mali, was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA. Mike Block is an American cellist/singer/composer, and a Grammy Award-winning musician with the Silkroad Ensemble originally trained in Western Classical music. They have teamed up with friends from America and West Africa to create an exciting fusion of musical styles in a 6-piece band that features Sidy Maiga (djembe/vocals), Idrissa Kone (talking drum/calabash/percussion/vocals), Luke Okerlund (electric guitar) and Mike Rivard (bass/sintir).
To say that Balla 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. Balla 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” was declared a site of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. This powerful symbol of Mande culture is brought out once a year for ceremonial playing. Balla 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.
Mike Block is a pioneering cello player, singer, composer, and educator, hailed by Yo- Yo Ma as the “ideal musician of the 21st-Century”. Mike is member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (SRE), having joined in 2005 while a student at The Juilliard School. Touring extensively throughout the world with SRE, he has been featured as cello and vocal soloist, contributed arrangements and compositions, and earned a Grammy Award in 2017 for their album, Sing Me Home. As an innovator, Mike is among the first wave of cellists to adopt a strap in order to stand and move while playing. With The Block Strap, Mike was the first standing cellist to perform at Carnegie Hall. The NY Times characterized the performance as, “Breathless … Half dance, half dare.” As an educator, Mike is passionate about creativity and collaboration, and is the founding director of Silkroad’s Global Musician Workshop, and the Mike Block String Camp.