Famoro Dioubate is a Guinean balafonist descended from an 800-year-old lineage of West African griot, stretching back to the Malian king Sundiata Keita. The balafon is one of the oldest griot instruments, the African predecessor to what we refer to as the xylophone. Famoro also happens to be the grandson of Elehaj Djeli Surie Kouyate, the legendary West African balafonist who is renowned throughout Africa. Famoro and his grandfather got a chance to play together when they were picked together by Mory Kante to play in his “Traditional Symphonie” group. I interviewed Famoro at his Harlem apartment—his buzzer didn’t work and his nine-year-old daughter came and let me in, and quietly sat and played while we spoke.
Aaron Lake Smith (The Brooklyn Rail): Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Famoro Dioubate: I am Famoro Dioubate. I come from West Africa, from a country called Guinea, and the city of Conakry. I am a djeli, which is the same as a griot in French—in English I think the translation is “living history book.” Since 1325, the Mali Empire of Sundiata Keita have had griot to record West African history—the djeli keep their history up here [Famoro taps his head]. The djeli were storytellers, like walking newspapers. When the colonizers arrived they split us up into 11 countries—Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Liberia, and more. Mali was the center of the Manding Empire—that’s why sometimes people call it the “Malian Empire.”
Rail: What’s the connection between Guinea and Mali? There seems to be a bond between the two countries.
Dioubate: The connection between Guinea and Mali is like brothers from the same mother but different father. We have the same djeli, same family, and same people. You see, like me and Baye [Kouyate]—he can call me to play with him and I don’t even know him or what he does, but we can play together without rehearsing.
Rail: Do you and Baye come from the same family? Your Grandfather’s last name is Kouyate.
Dioubate: In the deepest sense, we are family. All Kouyate, all Dioubate, and all Kante lines are the same family. [Note: these are the three main lineages of griot and djeli in West Africa]. A long time ago, griot people were sought out by the king. The king would come and find the griot and take his wife, kids, and family, and give them a big house to come stay in his country. Djeli and griot people have always been travelers.
Rail: Can you describe what a balafon is?
Dioubate: Bala is the Mandigo word. It’s called a xylophone in English. I make all my own balafon. Here in New York it’s not easy to get materials for a bala like in Africa. So when I want to make one I have to call my brother over in Guinea and he goes into the forest and cuts the wood. He cuts open the rubber trees and water pours out—then the tree bark becomes elastic and he sends me that so I can tie the bala together and wrap my mallets. He does everything over there and sends me the materials. I’m not playing a traditional tone here in America—I tune my bala to a keyboard. I want a bala that never speaks English, never speaks French. I want my bala to speak Mandingo.
Rail: You come from a long line of djeli?
Dioubate: In the djeli family there are different designations—some djeli just talk and tell the history, some just play instruments, and some sing. It’s like how in school you pick a course of study. My instrument is called the balafon. My grandfather is the best bala player in Manding society. Everyone knows him in West Africa—his name is El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyaté. He was director of a group called Ensemble Tradicion Symphonique. One day, when I was a little boy, my grandfather called me to him—he used to call me “Father.” Because I have the same name as his dad, my great-grandfather, Famoro. He calls me to him and he says, “Father, you know what? People are talking about you—they say you’re a good bala player. You should pick a group to be in. We have some groups here in the country and you should join one.”
Rail: When did you first start playing the balafon?
Dioubate: I started playing when I was six years old. I just picked up a bala and people were like “Oooohh! Look at him!” I started playing wedding parties when I was 12. My father took me to school, and at that time Guinea had a revolutionary government. The government would have parties, ballets, and I was always being taken out of school to play for people—the revolutionary government came to my school and asked, “Can we have Famoro? We have this musical program we want him to play in.”
Rail: You were twenty years old when you decided to leave Guinea and move to the Ivory Coast.
Dioubate: My djeli job is something I was born with that I’m not going to lose. I moved to Ivory Coast and stayed for five years. I was working with a very talented artist called Seku Camara Cobra. I spent a lot of time with him—he had a big house and gave me a room. I met Salif Keita and Mory Kante over there, who were very famous and playing with The Rail Band. [Note: The Rail Band was one of the most popular groups in Malian music, sponsored by the Ministry of Information and the rail companies.] In December of 1985, I came back to Guinea a very good bala player. When I came back people were excited to see me. Everyone was calling me now and I started to play to big crowds. One day I was playing a wedding and Mory Kante passed by in his car. He heard my bala song and stopped and came up to me, and showered me with money. People were whispering “Mory Kante! Mory Kante! You see how he gave money to Famoro?” I was very excited that this kind of big star would come to me. The next day—I was big in my area. I mean BIG! People were supporting me now. Mory Kante started a new group called Symphonique, and chose me and my grandfather to play bala in it. We traveled to France, Guinea, Europe, everywhere. Mory Kante trusted me and liked what I was doing with my instrument—he took to me like his son. He is my idol. When I wanted to do my CD release party—I wanted Mory Kante to come to New York and play my party. He was very busy, but he said, “I’m gonna cancel a show and go see my boy. I gotta help him. After that I’ll do my thing.”
Rail: How did you come to the United States?
Dioubate: In 1997, I came to New York and spent eight months and then went back to Guinea again. I made a group in Guinea called “Djelia” which translates to something like “djeli stuff” and got a contract to go to Paris, Bangkok, Sydney, and Fiji. There were eight people in my group—I put them on a plane back to Africa and decided to stay in Sydney. I said to myself, “I’m going to stay and try to find my way.” But my friends from the United States heard about it and called me in Sydney. My daughter’s mother called me one day and was saying, “Can you come over here? We don’t have any great bala players here.” So I came to America.
Rail: What was it like for you to come to New York?
Dioubate: It was a good change to come here. I don’t know anything about commerce or jobs. I just know my music—when I play my bala, people like it. Coming here was not really easy for me—I had a lot of hard times, but that’s part of life too. When I played in other cities, I didn’t know how to speak English and couldn’t talk about myself or my instrument—other people had to present me. I would just nod because I couldn’t understand anything. Some friends told me ‘If you don’t understand, don’t nod! Just say you don’t understand and we’ll help you!’ I built my own group here called Kakande—Kakande is the name of my village in Guinea where my parents come from. The album I named Dununya—which means “universal.”
Rail: Is it strange being an African among African-Americans?
Dioubate: All these African-Americans—they love me and I love them. We’re part of the same family. Color is nothing to me. If you’re nice to me, you are my brother. If you support me, you are my buddy. Life is like that—we share and we help each other. When the time comes, I will pass and die—it will be over for me. Some people take bala lessons from me and one day I was in Prospect Park teaching and this black guy came up to me and yelled “Brother, why are you teaching them? This is for us!” I was like—“Don’t talk like that. This is for everybody. If you want to do something, you can do it.”
Rail: You have another daughter still in Guinea?
Dioubate: Yes. I left my country when she was three; now she’s twelve years old. She misses me like I miss her. All the time we’re on the phone and she cries and says, “Daddy, I want to see you!” I have to say, my daughter, this is life—I’m here, and I’m working hard here so I can go see my daughter. I’ve lived here almost ten years. My father is sick, and everybody in my family wants to see me. I want to see them too. I’m here because my hope is that one of my students can be a great American bala player. When I’m dead, I want them to say, ‘This is Famoro’s student’."
Rail: We’ve got to pass on our knowledge from generation to generation.
Dioubate: Exactly. I like to show my culture here. I know American people have a lot of culture, too—but I want to show where I’m from. This music is about education. If you want to be a really good musician, you have to be serious. You have to listen—take your time, don’t hurry. Have good thinking. I want to be part of something where I can show people what I have. Life is not easy here. But I can thank God because I am surviving here.