World-renowned balafon master Balla Kouyaté and MLK-inspired choral masterwork headline EMU’s 2022 Gala Concert

Balla Kouyaté is the featured guest artist for EMU’s 2022 Gala Concert.

Renowned balafon virtuoso Balla Kouyaté has toured extensively in Africa and Europe, performed in front of 27 African presidents, and been a featured artist in more than 45 albums. Now Harrisonburg music-lovers will have the opportunity to enjoy his unique artistry on the traditional Malian xylophone when this world-class talent and living legend takes the stage for Eastern Mennonite University’s 2022 Gala Concert.

Kouyaté will perform with EMU ensembles for the Nov. 11 event that also features composer Nicholas Flagello’s choral masterwork “The Passion of Martin Luther King,” dedicated to the civil rights icon.

Nicholas Flagello’s choral masterwork “The Passion of Martin Luther King,” will be performed by the EMU Orchestra and University Choir.

The concert begins at 7 p.m. in Lehman Auditorium and will also be livestreamed on EMU’s Facebook Live page. The concert is free, with donations welcome to help support the EMU music program.

The concert is themed “Truth and Light.”

“So often truth and light go hand in hand. That is something that Dr. King taught all of us,” said Professor David Berry, music program director. Our program begins with Flagello’s immense and rarely performed choral masterwork, which shares King’s words with emotion and power. With the orchestra and chorus, we’ll also tell the story through video images and photographs. This part of the concert emphasizes the importance, poignancy, and beauty of truth. After the choral work has finished and Balla takes the stage with our ensembles, it will be pure joy and light. We need both of these in our world, the power of truth and the hope of light.”

Berry called the concert “a rare chance to experience the gifts of a tremendous musician who is also an important figure in world music history.”

Kouyaté comes from an 800-year long family line of performers on the traditional Malian xylophone, or balafon. The first instrument of its kind, over 1000 years old, remains in his family, and is considered a UNESCO Artifact of Oral and Intangible History.

His energetic and joy-filled performances featuring both traditional music of Mali, as well as fusion performances with bands and orchestra, have thrilled audiences throughout the world. 

In 2019, Kouyaté was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the highest form of recognition for the folk and traditional arts by the United States government. He has performed in many festivals and the most famous venues across Europe and the United States. He has given lectures, demonstrations and master classes in universities and schools across the country, including Harvard University, MIT, Berklee School of Music and CalArts.

Kouyaté will perform with the EMU orchestra and Shenandoah Valley Youth Symphony, EMU Jazz band, and EMU Chamber Singers.

American composer Nicholas Flagello was moved to compose “The Passion of Martin Luther King” in 1968 as a response to King’s assassination. The piece is inspired by two of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most celebrated works, “St. Matthew’s Passion” and “St. John’s Passion” which are musical retellings of the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Kouyaté will visit schools around the valley in a unique collaboration with Any Given Child-Shenandoah Valley. The EMU music program is a premier artist partner with the Kennedy Center-sponsored arts education nonprofit. Read more about this partnership.

“Many partnerships with the local and broader arts ecosystem have helped to make this concert we have dreamed of come true,” said Berry. “We’re thankful for organizations like the Shenandoah Valley Preparatory Music Program, Shenandoah Valley Children’s Chorus, and the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival as well as Any Given Child-Shenandoah Valley for helping us to host this event.”

Past gala concerts: A tradition of excellence

  • JANINAH BURNETT: View video highlights and a photoessay of the 2019 event with Burnett, then starring on Broadway in Phantom of the Opera.

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