Africa: Cathartic Rhythms for West African Band Born in 'Black London'


African-infused London-based jazz band the Balimaya Project is a tour-de-force of sound fusion and energy. The 13-piece band is coming to Paris before a headline show in London in October. RFI caught up with them at the Womad festival in late July.

Formed in 2019 by percussionist Yahael Camara Onono, the Balimaya Project aims to bridge West African traditional Mandé music together with jazz and the "sounds of black London" to create "an eclectic, soul-stirring style that's steeped in rich traditions".

Yahael was born to a Senegalese father and a Nigerian mother but grew up in Britain. He was largely exposed to his African roots and other West African cultures, including that of Mali, through friends and family.

He created the group to show what the African diaspora in London could do in terms of traditional, jazz and experimental music - using both the Maninkakan language and English.

"I started this project to be innovative while rooted in authenticity ... and to create a safe space to share what we do, share our music and our experience," Yahael told RFI.

The band's first album, Wolo So, was released in 2021.

Their new album When The Dust Settles fuses West African folkloric music and jazz. To celebrate its release, on 21 July, the Balimaya Project gave a joyful performance at Womad.

"I'd been hearing about Womad for years and it's a pleasure to finally be here," he said. "So many African artists I loved performed here."

The band has also released two singles so far: "For Aziz," a composition infused with cathartic rhythms and featuring Afronaut Zu, and "Anka Tulon".

Its percussive and horn-driven energy displays joy, exuberrance and a contemporary sound, made of many cultural layers.

With Yahael acting as a conductor, 12 other musicians are present on stage playing percussion, keyboards, drums, brass and guitar.

"We play so many instruments, especially percussions - djembe, dounoun, and kora, combas, sangban, shekere, guitar, bass, even talking drums," Yahael says.

"One brass section has a sax, trombones, trumpets, flugelhorns and flutes. And we have keys."

The Balimaya Project will be performing on 8 September in Paris at Jazz à La Villette, opening for the legendary 1980s jazz fusion band Sixtun.

Yahael is also the 22/23 Milton Court Artist-In-Residence at the Barbican Centre in London.

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