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Mass Cultural Council has long been a leader in its support of the traditional arts. As folklorist for our Folk Arts & Heritage Program, it is my job to help advance the work of traditional artists practicing within ethnic communities and geographic regions across the state.
It is individuals like Balla who make my work so deeply gratifying. Not only is he a virtuoso balafon player, he has this incredible family story. His family lineage goes back over 800 years in an unbroken line of djelis in the Kouyaté clan. Earlier this year, I nominated Balla for a National Heritage Fellowship, the country’s highest honor bestowed upon traditional artists by the NEA.
The NEA awarded the first Heritage Fellowships in 1982. These fellowships recognize artistic excellence, lifetime achievement, and contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage. Since 1982, nine Massachusetts artists have been recognized as fellows. They include Joe Cormier (1984), Howard Armstrong (1990), Jimmy “Slyde” Godbolt (1999), Peter Kyvelos (2001), Joe Derrane (2004), Nancy Sweezy (2006), Harold A. Burnham (2012), Yary Livan (2015), and Balla Kouyaté (2019).
I was fortunate to be present at the 2019 Fellowships award ceremony in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress where Mary Ann Carter, Chairwoman of the NEA, introduced each of the nine Fellows, and Cliff Murphy, NEA Director of Folk & Traditional Arts, presented the medals.
That evening, the Fellows were feted at a banquet in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress.
The 2019 “class” of fellows wrapped up their week of festivities by performing at Sidney Harman Hall. The concert was book-ended by performances by Balla playing the balafon. He opened the concert, spot lit on a darkened stage, with a balafon solo. The concert closed with Balla accompanied by musicians and a dancer from Mali.
Attending the Fellowships ceremony and concert was a reminder of what makes this country of ours so unique; the stories, songs, tunes, dance steps, and crafts that have been passed down of long-settled and new immigrant communities. These vital and continually reinvigorated artist traditions are shaped by values and standards of excellence. It is right that they be honored and celebrated.