A flute entwines its melancholy call with the voice of the wind in the reeds as a young Peul shepherd dreams of his homeland, the dry and suncracked Sahel. He has left his sweetheart there, back in the north, and is now heading west, walking across the savannah. His destination is the royal city of the Dioulas, Bobo-Dioulasso - where they told him that, in the old quarter of Bolomakoté, he would find the elder, Mahama Konaté, distinguished master of the balafon and leader of a famous ensemble known as far away as the lands where snow falls…

This could be the opening scene of a film that tells the story of Farafina. The setting is sparse and barren; the characters are honest and down-to-earth, with a communal spirit for their music and dance of such intensity that it drives the group forward, in a whirlwind of joyous trance, to discover and communicate with other peoples of the world.

Farafina is essentially a spirtual concept, an ‘idea’ of the music of Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta, which is twice as big as England but with a population of scarcely seven million. In Bobo-Dioulasso, the art of the griots still thrives today, just as it did during the time of the ancient Manding empire. A strong spirit of competition, stimulated by the ‘National Week of Culture,’ has made the city a tremendous crucible of musical and dancing talent.

Farafina is also a ‘school’ – a place where experienced musicians (‘the elders’) pass on their knowledge to passionately keen young players.

"The young ones begin by carrying the instruments for the master musicians when they go to lead the festivities at marriages. To begin with, they sing and beat out the rhythm on stones or makeshift instruments. And if they seem to have talent they are given a bara or a djembé on which to practice." Michel Schaer, manager and agent

In Bob, there are at least three groups that originate from the ‘Farafina school,’ which numbers 25 musicians. The younger groups enliven marriages and initiations, while the international group – made up of the best players – comes together mainly before the tours. In this way the members of the group have been able to change over the years.

A perfect example is Yaya Ouattara, a devoted student of the ‘school’ of Bolomakoté since the age of about 10. Fascinated by the group’s leading soloist Paco Yé, his virtuosity on the djembé, and his incredible mastery of dance, Yaya’s greatest dream was to perform with his idol. His dream became reality, after years of determined study, when he accompanied Paco Yé on the stages of the world at the age of only 17. Two years later, his young ‘master’ handed over to him and Yaya now stokes the fire of exhilaration in people’s hearts with his pyrotechnic djembé playing.

Farafina was formed in 1978 by Mahama Konaté, virtuoso balafon player and former member of the National Ballet of Upper Volta. He remains the spiritual father of the group, which performs many of his compositions, though he left the group in 1991. When Farafina went onstage for the first time in Europe in 1982, its repertoire was very traditional. Progressively, however, through contact with a western public facilitated by the band’s Swiss management, Farafina’s style developed toward new forms of expression.

Collaborations with Jon Hassell for the album Flash of the Spirit, with the Rolling Stones on Steel Wheels, and contributions on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Beauty highlighted this new direction, without compromising the integrity of Farafina’s original collective inspiration.

The album they recorded for Real World Records marked the tenth anniversary of their European career and traces the group’s stylistic evolution.

Further reading

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The Zawose Queens, Pendo and Leah, are the daughter and grand-daughter of the late Dr. Hukwe Zawose.

10 years of resistance: Les Amazones d’Afrique’s fight continues on Musow Danse

Righteous anger has never felt so warm and convincing. Or so goddam danceable.

A Tribute to Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo (1969-2023)

Sidestepper's Richard Blair remembers his late bandmate Teto.