The Balimaya Project and why we should be excited about Mandé jazz

Balimaya project
6 min read
15 December, 2022
For the past 70 years, the United Kingdom has been a pole bearer for global musical creativity and artistic syncretism. Inspired by and derived from the music of the Mandé people of West Africa, the Balimaya Project is forging new jazz-filled ground.

Two young West African Black women, dressed in peach and brown flowy garments and a veil joyfully play about, riding horses at the edge of the Atlantic ocean, never breaking the ‘fourth wall’ by avoiding the camera’s gaze.

All the while, a crescendo of saxophones, drums and xylophones erupts into a tune reminiscent of a late 70s music sequence.

‘Tis the season to be Mandé

The scene described here is a short film sequence for the track Seasons of Barakah from the Balimaya Project. The 12 to 16-member band has been grabbing attention for its ode to ‘Mandé jazz’ in the United Kingdom.

It’s an umbrella term that fuses various Mandé musical genres from the ethnic group it is named after, with sounds from the Black Atlantic world in the Western hemisphere.

"I wouldn’t be true to myself if the Balimaya Project was only about Mandinka music. And I wouldn’t be true to myself if the music was pure jazz because I did not train as a jazz musician. But I grew up with Mandinka music and worked in the jazz field so I wanted to purposefully choose instruments that I knew would work together"

On Zoom, I spoke with the band’s musical director and lead composer, 31-year-old Yahael Camara-Onono, who had only just collected his group’s latest accolade, the ‘Best Newcomer' award at this year’s Songlines Music Awards – where they were also nominated for the Best of Africa and the Middle East category.

Speaking on the track’s visuals he tells The New Arab, “It represents our (African) heritage in that Black women are on that beach in Africa, and that barakah (blessings in Arabic) is an Islamic principle that describes where we are as a group right now. It’s a word that is used in West African languages. (The visuals) are also Afrofuturistic. You can see that in the full moon, and the women looking out to what could be and what is possible.”

Balimaya Project’s why we should be excited about Mandé jazz
The Mandé people inhabit various environments from rainforest to desert, the variation of which informs their rich culture and heritage. This picture is taken from The Balimaya Project's track 'Seasons of Bakarah' [photo credit: Adeolu Osibodu]

Yahael plays the djembe drum which originated at the height of the Mali empire, through the Mandinka people, a sub-group of the Mandé community. “My dad is from the Soninke community in Senegal, and he played Sangba (a type of bass drum). My mother (an Igbo, Hausa and Fulani from Nigeria) used to dance in the national dance troupe. So even though I grew up in London, it (music) was an innate part of my upbringing,” he tells The New Arab.

His love for playing pots and pans in the house also led to his grandfather and mother gifting him a Nigerian talking drum and a djembe drum – instruments he saw played at special events in the Ivory Coast, Senegal and London.

Today, he’s built a career focusing on folklore music, leading him to perform with some of the most seasoned jazz musicians such as Family Atlantica and Maisha, and others- some of whom are part of the Balimaya Project.

Seedlings of Balimaya

Balimaya in Mandinka means ‘family’, and is the essence that creates and keeps kinship. It’s also a salutation that one can greet with.

The initial inspiration for the group started in the Arab world, in Dubai, where Yahael had lived and spent time performing for six years. An off-the-cuff Mandinka performance at a restaurant planted the seedlings for the group.

But it was not until he returned to the UK that he began to realise how important it was for him to elevate his rich musical heritage. 

“I picked all the different musicians that I worked with who are Black and from inner city London, as well as those from the continent like Jali Bakary Konteh who plays the Kora. In January 2019, we had our first rehearsal at the Royal Music Academy in London,” he says.

Jazz colours the way the band plays Mandé music. Its non-linear and improvised style runs through the composition of most tracks on their first album, Wolo So, such as ‘I no go gree/Aniweta’, ‘City of God’ and ‘Dakan’. 

“I wouldn’t be true to myself if the Balimaya Project was only about Mandinka music. And I wouldn’t be true to myself if the music was pure jazz because I did not train as a jazz musician. But I grew up with Mandinka music and worked in the jazz field so I wanted to purposefully choose instruments that I knew would work together (from both genres),” he explains to The New Arab.

While Wolo So intertwined these different influences, the Balimaya Project is attempting something new with their upcoming album.

Wolo So is a spotlight on the Balimaya Project, an introduction to what we represent so it was quite obvious. I didn’t want to leave too much to interpretation, and that can be seen in the clarity of the album cover, (as it shows) the instruments we use and who we are. 

"But the upcoming album When The Dust Settles moves into the abstract realm, the bending of sounds and production. It’s an ode to what happens during the initial contact of the (African) diaspora and the continent (Africa) meeting and that initial joy and all the different aspects of ourselves,” Yahael says.

Sultans of swing

While Yahael is cautious to describe the Balimaya Project as wholly Muslim-oriented, with the exception of the track, Seasons of Barakah, it’s unmistakable that his musical trajectory is similar to other Black Muslim musicians that represent a special relationship dating back to the blues.

Jazz scholar Robin Kelley says: “The most significant non-Christian tradition in jazz history is Islam.” Between the 1940s and 1960s, many African-American jazz musicians became Muslim, such as reed player Yusef Lateef and bassist Ahmed-Abdul Malik, who often used Arab-Islamic styles in their performances.

"The biggest dream is to take all the band, who are all Black people, apart from a Tunisian, to the continent, many of whom have never gone"

Art Blakey and Ahmad Jamal played bebop, Parker McQueeney cites in his work Sultans of Swing: Prophetics and Aesthetics of Muslim Jazz Musicians in 20th Century America, seeking “to appropriate Islam towards the musical project of American identity.”

While never becoming Muslim himself, the great John Coltrane was influenced by Islam, most explicitly represented in his seminal work A Love Supreme which features his seminal piece Naima, from the Arabic word meaning “benevolent."

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Yahael wants to go further than fusion, by physically bringing jazz to the shores of one of its birthplaces, Africa. 

Jazz itself may have been born in New Orleans during the early 20th century, but its roots can be found in the musical traditions of West Africa.

“The biggest dream is to take all the band, who are all Black people, apart from a Tunisian, to the continent, many of whom have never gone," Yahael tells The New Arab.

"When I do see jazz played in Senegal it is often played to white audiences in their clubs. Classwise, it does not have the same activist appeal as it did in South Africa and for African-Americans. The music of the revolution in Africa was Congolese rhumba which is why a lot of African musicians use electric guitars.

"But I am starting to see that people are using new forms to express themselves and incorporating elements of tradition in jazz and it can still be considered jazz.”

Adama Juldeh Munu is an award-winning journalist that's worked with TRT World, Al-Jazeera, the Huffington Post, Middle East Eye and Black Ballad. She writes about race, Black heritage and issues connecting Islam and the African diaspora.

Follow her on Twitter: @adamajmunu