N’Faly Kouyate, a Guinean kora player who lives in Belgium, recently released the phenomenal album, Change, which combines a heartfelt, powerful message against xenophobia and the illegal arms trade with a unique combination of traditional Mandingo instruments and synthesizers. Afropop writer Jesse Brent reached out to Kouyate via email, to find out about his griot background and how the new album came together.
Jesse Brent: Can you tell me about your childhood in Guinea? What did you learn about the griot tradition from your father?
N’Faly Kouyate: I was born in a griot family. The griot is like a bard in the Celtic country. To explain what a griot is, it is important to talk about the place in Africa where they come from. The griot comes from a big empire from 12th century. This empire is the Mandingo empire. It consisted of Mali, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Guinea Conakry. All these countries formed a big empire in the 12th century. In this empire, the society was structured in different social classes, like hunters and fishermen. But the people of the Mandingo empire did not write books to remember our history. The people of Mandingo chose some family names to take the place of the library–the life library. And they talked to the people, they sang, they danced for the people and they were everywhere in the society–like blood in the body. We, the people of Mandingo, called them “the blood of society.” In Mandingo it means “griot.” Griot is the blood of the society and this is my family. In my family, we learned to play music instruments from the time we were babies. At all time, the music is in our life. Imagine the women with their husbands are together, and she is pregnant and the baby comes to the world. The music continues till the end. I can’t tell exactly when I started playing music, because my first toys were instruments. Music is very mixed in my life.
What kind of music were you listening to when you were young and when did you start playing the kora?
I started listening [to] my father’s music, because he was a very great composer and he influenced me very much. And after my father, I chose the husband of my sister, Sory Kandia Kouyaté. He is a big big big musician in Africa. After this, my favorite singer is Harry Belafonte, an American singer, and Aretha Franklin. Yes, I like listening to that. But usually, I like to listen all music. Jazz and classical. I like classical music very much and techno music. When I was young, I listened to all music: Guinean music, African music. Polyphony–I like very much polyphony.
Why did you decide to move from Guinea to Belgium?
I never dreamed to come to Europe. Europe is not for me, because the tourists come to Europe. I did not have the money for moving away. I even can’t afford to go from my village to the capital city of Guinea. I never left Guinea. Only when I did music, I left. I went to Mali; I went to Libya, which didn’t cost me anything, because the government paid for it. In 1994, the government of Guinea called me, when I was studying in university. They want me to go to the Minister of Culture in Guinea and they gave me the possibility to go to Europe to study electronic music in England. And I said yes. I am very happy about that, but I never dreamed of going to Europe, because Europe was very expensive for me. I couldn’t afford it. Now the National Theater of Guinea asked me to compose a sound for their new drama. And they asked me to accompany them to go to a theater festival in Burkina Faso. When I went there, I met some people from Belgium: a theater troupe from Belgium. And when I return to Guinea after the festival, this Belgian troupe invited me to come to Belgium. I asked my Minister of Culture if I could go to Brussels before I began to study in London. And the director of culture said, “Yes, it is very close. London is closer to Brussels than Guinea. You can go there. When the money from the government for your study arrives, you will move from Brussels to London.” This is why I came to Belgium. When I arrived, I was lucky about that–to have another project here. I gave courses for kora in a conservatory.
How did you get involved with the Afro Celt Sound System?
When I finished the studies here, in the conservatory, the direction of my project changed. Usually, I had to teach people in the conservatory, but it was changed to do gala concerts for the upper class here. One day, I played for the embassy and a woman invited me to come to play in London. When I went there, I played for the opening of a library, an African library in London. When I played, somebody met me and invited me to play on a festival of Peter Gabriel called WOMAD. When I went there, James McNally met me and proposed for me to play with his band, Afro Celt Sound System. The band was produced by RealWorld Records. I played one concert with them in Dublin. After this, they asked me to become a member of Afro Celt.
I find the production style of your new album very interesting. Did you produce it yourself? Does it seem natural for you to mix koras with synthesizers?
O.K. I am very interested in modern music and modern sound. But it was my dream, a big dream, to mix the kora with the synthesizer and modern instruments. The work with Afro Celt was a kind of inspiration. And for myself, it was always a big dream. But one day, I met a gentleman from London: Pete Ardron, a very nice technician. I asked him to produce me, and I sent him one track, “Meya.” It was very nice, and I went to his studio to bring many compositions. We produced the whole album Change in 10 days. It was him, who produced them. And I liked that. It was very interesting for me to mix the kora with synthesizer, but for me, it was the realization of a dream and a great experience. I use the modernity now to bring the tradition. Nobody in our time now can close his eyes to modernity, to technology. You have to live your life with technology. I use the technology now to bring the cultural tradition up.
What inspires your songwriting? Do you feel linked to the griot tradition as a songwriter?
Yes, the griot tradition helped me very much, because I groove all the time with this. But my compositions are very different. It depends on the atmosphere. Sometimes, I am happy and bam! inspiration. And it will be a very happy sound. Sometimes, when I see something bad in the newspaper or Internet, it makes me very sad and I compose songs like “Vente d’armes” and “Hope.” Somebody from UNICEF asked me to compose one song to condemn the trade of weapons. I composed it to condemn selling guns and voila: my composition.
What is the story behind the song “All Unite For Africa”?
I was in South Africa for a big festival there. When we arrived we directly recognized the social situation of South Africa changed with xenophobia. Ooh. It was hard for the people of South Africa. All my ancestors were peacemakers. They talked about making peace. And for me, it is important to try to do the job of my ancestors. I said, “I have to go there.” And I arrived; I recognized the situation was very bad, worse than they showed on TV. Immediately, when I was in the hotel room, I started to write this song, “All Unite For Africa,” and Sandra Werner, my manager, tried directly to contact some musicians and artists, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They directly said, “Yes, you are welcome. We offer you our studio. You can come and we will sing for you, and all of it is free, because it is FOR Africa.” That was the situation. And we came to Johannesburg and talked to Neill Solomon, a very nice piano player. He has a big, fantastic studio and he offered me the studio all day long for the production of this CD. I invited some singers like Mandisa Dlanga. They came directly to sing and rap. They were very happy about this composition for Africa.
Do you go back to Guinea often? What are your impressions of the music scenes today in Guinea and in Belgium?
Yes, I miss Guinea, because there are some bad things and the situation of health care is very bad. Guinean music is very nice–fantastic. But we have to, in Guinea, be careful, because the people use music just to get money. Not everybody does that, but many people do that. And the young people start to forget our tradition. They prefer now to rap and copy the music to sell it. It’s O.K., but you have to mix this to give the value of our traditional music. And the music in Belgium here…I am very happy to be one the multicultural musicians here and the people respect me. The people like my music and I am very happy about that. I was nominated for Octaves de la Musique, a Belgian musician prize. And the people of Belgium like my music. I am very happy about the government supporting me for that. Sometimes I play some traditional music here with kora, like “Petit Caillou.” I sang for the royal family in Belgium.
Have you been touring recently? Any plans to come to the United States? We’d love to see you here!
Oh, that’s maybe a “little secret” for the moment, but we are thinking about it, of course. This summer was nice with Change. We were touring more in U.K., in France, in Germany.