Drum-magic from Burkina Faso
Founded in 1978 by Mahama Konaté, one of the best balaphone-players in West Africa, the polyrhythmic dance and percussion group Farafina comes from Burkina Faso (known till 1984 as Upper Volta) and for the last twenty years has been giving concerts all round the world. Due to its celebrated co-operation with the Rolling Stones, the Japanese sound-architect Ryuichi Sakamoto and the integration-pioneer Jon Hassell, it was one of the first groups to contribute decisively to the rising popularity of world music in Europe and the USA.
After Mahama Konate left in 1990, the group broke up then rejoined a few years later in a slightly modernised version produced by Billy Cobham and Peter Gabriel. After awhile Konaté began to publish his traditional music under the name Farafina Lili.
The 8 musicians, dancers and singers of Farafina conjure up from the tara (talking drum), the tama (a wooden drum whose pitch can be changed under pressure from the arm), the djembe (a drum shaped like a chalice and covered with goatskin), and the balaphone (a forerunner of the xylophone) a glittering fabric of sounds, melodies and rhythms, which have made the group world-famous. Its music mingles features from the mandan tradition of the bambaran griots from Burkina Faso with melodies and rhythms from the neighbouring lands Mali, Niger, Benin and Ghana. The group plays in the tradition of those which for centuries have been accompanying griots (singers and storytellers) in West Africa, and bases its polyrhythmic sound on two balaphones and a set of drums and rattles. Few groups managed as early and as artistically as Farafina to blend traditional African drum-playing with the structures of western jazz and rock.
Already in the 80s this balaphone and percussion group, which had been founded in 1978 in Burkina Faso (still known at the time as Upper Volta), played a historical role in (world)-music history. In 1985 Farafina played at the Montreux Jazz Festival, then 3 years later for 72 000 listeners at Nelson Mandela?s birthday concert in the London Wembley Stadium.
In 1998 Farafina recorded in London, together with the trumpeter John Hassel, its first CD and entitled it Flash of the Spirit. Since the 70s and a period of studying Indian music, John Hassel had been blending various ethnic music styles with electronic techniques into what he called fourth-world music. Unlike most world-music at that time, this album, produced by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and John Hassel, avoided an ethnological approach and tried to integrate the various dimensions of the music into a convincing whole in which the balaphone and drum rhythms from Farafina serve as a basis for John Hassel?s trumpet improvisations and for the ambience typical of Brian Eno.
A year later, the Rolling Stones took Farafina to record the album Continental Drift with them on their ?Steel Wheels? tour. Moreover Farafina also took part in three recordings made by the Japanese sound-designer Ryuichi Sakamoto for his CD Beauty. Up to 1990 Farafina could be heard on its own only on cassettes from Burkina Faso, but then it brought out its first CD, Bolomakoté. Soon afterwards Mahama Konaté, the group?s founder, left it, as he objected to the plans of the manager and other musicians to introduce electronically amplified instruments and to play what he felt was Europeanised world music.
Belonging to the Senufo tradition, Mahama Konaté was a member of Upper Volta?s national ballet and in the 70s was already said to be the best balaphone-player in West Africa. His career began in Bobo Dioulasso, the second biggest city in Upper Volta, where he played in cabarets and at baptisms and weddings. Soon he won the first prize at the national ballet, with which he then travelled to Quebec and Algeria.
In 1978 he founded his own group, which he named Farafina (The Land of the Black-Skinned), and with it played music traditional in Burkina Faso at festivities. Despite his traditional leanings, Konaté is one of the few West African balaphone-virtuosi who has not only preserved but also developed the tradition, enriching it with new compositions.
Farafina broke up but soon rejoined under the same name and in 1993 recorded in Peter Gabriel?s Real World studio its second CD, Faso denou, produced by Billy Cobham and Daniel Lanois. It was another 5 years before the group recorded in 1998 its third and latest Album Nemako, produced by Michel Schaer and Thierry van Roy under the label Intuition. Even here the musicians remain true to their African roots. The music is dominated by traditional instruments like the balaphone, tara, tama, djiembe and cora as well as traditional themes. Modern instruments, like keyboards, e-bass and e-guitar, set a few accents.
Maham Konaté at first withdrew to his farm by Bobo Dioulasso where, since its founding, the group has run a school for professional and aspiring musicians. Here he does his farming and for more than 20 years has led novices into music step by step. In Bobo Dioulasso there are three classes of 20 to 30 persons, forming a big reserve of aspiring talent for the internationally known group, whose members here get ready for their tours or recordings.
Till 1996 Konaté stayed here till going on tour with his group, which he had to call Farafina Lili, since he did not own the copyright on the name Farafina. In 1998 there appeared the new group?s first album Miriya, on which Konaté lit a firework of percussion rhythms and balaphone sounds. There are hints of jazz and rock features, but always in harmony with the music?s ancient pentatonic forms.
For Mahama Konaté, playing the traditional instruments without electronic amplification has not only a musical but also a spiritual aspect. ?I find the traditional music not only better but also more joyous and lively and more respectful of our land and history. It is all full of meaning, even the instrument-making. Every musician must make his own instruments in harmony with nature. And by playing them, we return nature?s gifts. That is a traditional cycle to be respected.? (www.afriyie-lines.ch/pages/miriya.htm)
This is an unusual statement for an African musician, who together with his group has risen into the top echelons of rock-music and sound-technique. Like Ali Farka Touré, Maham Konaté is one of the few musicians who, in spite of great international success, has not striven to become a star of world music.
Events at the HKW:
Saturday, 17th February, 1990
West African Music Today
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Saturday, 4th September, 1999
10 Years of the House of World Cultures
Organiser: House of World Cultures
The music and dance group Farafina was founded in 1978 by the balophone-player Mahama Konaté in Bobo-Dioulasso in the south of Upper Volta (renamed Burkina Faso in 1984). In 1985 the group celebrated its first great success in the ?West? at the international jazz festival in Montreux, where it again played in 1989 and 1995. In 1988 Farafina played to 72 000 listeners in Wembley Stadium to celebrate Nelson Mandela?s 70th birthday. That same year, the trumpeter and fusion-composer John Hassel recorded Farafina for his album Flash of the Spirit; the Rolling Stones invited them to record for their Steel Wheel album; and even the Japanese pianist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto asked them to work with him on his album Beauty. At last in 1990 there appeared the first Farafina CD, Bolomakoté, followed by concerts all over Europe. At the end of the tour, the founder Mahama Konaté left the group and withdrew to Bobo-Dioulasso where, since its founding, Farafina has run a school for aspiring musicians.
In 1993 a reformed Farafina toured the USA and Canada and in the Real World studio of Peter Gabriel recorded a second album, Faso denou, produced by Daniel Lanois and Billy Cobham, who also contributed as a drummer. Since then there have been many performances in Europe, Canada and the USA, and the group?s third album, Nemako, appeared in 1998.
Farafina was one of the groups which played in 1999 in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the House of World Cultures in Berlin. That same year, the group also played at the Womad Festival in Singapore.
Mahama Konaté too, after a break of several years, went on tour with Farafina Lili in 1996 and 1997, beginning with France. In 1998 he brought out the album Miriya.