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- Lenox, MA
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The Boston area is home to a large and growing Nepalese community. One of its cultural leaders is Shyam Nepali, a master of the Nepalese sarangi. Shyam Nepali was born into one of the most prominent musical families of the centuries old Gandharva musical caste in Nepal. Historically, the Gandharva earned their living as traveling musicians, composing songs that brought news to villagers throughout Nepal’s mountainous region. Other songs were inspired by the sounds of nature and the beauty of the rural landscape.
Shyam’s grandfather, Magar Gaire Nepali, and father, Ram Saran Nepali, are among the most accomplished and innovative musicians in the Gandharva tradition. They all play the sarangi, a bowed string instrument, carved out of a single log of wood. The sarangi is unique among most string instruments because the notes are sounded by touching the strings with the fingernails instead of the fingertips. The nails touch the sides of the strings, and since no pressure is required from the fingers, it allows great flexibility and agility in making expressive sounds such as sliding, and different types of complex ornamentation.
Through recordings made in the 1960s and ’70s, the music of the Gandharva spread beyond Nepal. By the 1990s, interest in the music started to die down, and it is now endangered. Shyam is also a founding member of the Himalayan Heritage Academy, a Boston based school dedicated to teaching traditional Nepalese arts to the next generation.
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Vasilis Kostas grew up in Epirus, a region in northwest Greece. The indigenous music of the area was noted in the New York Times as the source of the world’s most beguiling folk music. Every summer, locals hold panegyria – multiday, music-filled religious festivals in which they mourn their losses and celebrate what remains.
Vasilis was mentored by his grandfather and other elders in learning the old songs of Epirus. Accompanying himself on guitar, he performed at weddings and local celebrations. When Berklee College of Music offered him a scholarship in jazz guitar, he thought he was ready to leave his tradition behind. But then Berklee sent Vasilis to Spain to present the traditional music of Greece. He had begun to learn the Greek laouto (lute.) After performing, Vasilis met flamenco legend José Mercé, who encouraged him to continue the Greek laouto rather than the guitar, “This is your future.”
Traditionally, the laouto serves as an accompanying instrument and is strummed. A full scholarship at the Berklee Global Jazz Institute provided the ideal environment in which to transform the technique and repertoire of the laouto. Vasilis started adapting the complex melodic lines of the clarinet to the fretted laouto and went on to record and perform with living legend and master clarinetist Petroloukas Halkias. Vasilis’s innovative technique has opened up new horizons for the instrument in both the Greek traditional and jazz worlds. His original compositions draw on his Greek roots and explore other musical traditions of the Mediterranean. Tonight, Vasilis is accompanied by George Lernis, a percussionist originally from Cypress, and James Dale, a string bass player from Australia.
|Vasilis Kostas Trio|
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Balla Kouyaté’s lineage goes back more than 800 years to Balla Faséké, the first of an unbroken line of djelis in the Kouyaté clan. The word “djeli” derives from the Mandinka language, meaning 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. Kouyaté explains, “It means blood and speaks to the central role we play in our society.” Kouyaté’s dedication to carrying on his family’s hereditary role as a djeli, his musical virtuosity on the balafon (the West African antecedent of the xylophone), and his humble nature and humility set him apart from others.
Oral tradition holds that when the emperor Sundiata overthrew Soumaora Kante, he appointed the Kouyaté family to protect the balafon. Today, Balla Kouyaté is a virtuoso player of this instrument. Played with mallets, the balafon is made up of wooden slats and rows of calabash gourds, which serve as natural amplifiers. The original musical instrument, known as the “Sosso-Bala,” survives in Kouyaté’s father’s home village of Niagassola, on the Mali-Guinea border. In 2001, the Sosso-Bala was declared a item of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO and is brought out once a year for ceremonial playing.
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. Balla Kouyaté learned to play the balafon as a child and was soon playing alongside his mother, motivating agricultural laborers during harvest season. As a young adult, he emigrated to the U.S. in 2000 to pursue music as a profession, settling in Massachusetts in 2001.
Today, Balla is ever present performing at weddings, baptisms, naming ceremonies, and other domestic ceremonies within the West African immigrant communities of Boston, New York City, and beyond. He is equally motivated to share his music with the larger world through his work as a soloist, arranger, and bandleader. Often billed as fusion, his music explores jazz and other outside influences, while remaining consciously rooted in the Mandé tradition.
Kouyaté is featured on more than 25 albums, including Yo-Yo Ma’s Songs of Joy and Peace and Sing Me Home. He also regularly plays with world-renowned West African musicians touring the States. In 2004, Kouyaté joined NEA National Heritage Fellow Sidiki Conde for a month-long residency at Carnegie Hall. Recent awards include a 2010 Mass Cultural Council Fellowship in the Traditional Arts, a 2014 Mass Cultural Council Traditional Arts Apprenticeship awarded to Kouyaté and his son Sekou, and a 2015 Brother Thomas Fellowship awarded by the Boston Foundation. He is a frequent visiting lecturer/performer at colleges and museums throughout the United States. He is on the faculty at the New England Music Conservatory. In September 2019, Balla was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, the country’s highest honor bestowed upon traditional artists.