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Fodé Lassana Diabaté - Mali

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About Sunjata's Time

Program Notes

Sunjata’s Time is dedicated to Sunjata Keita, the warrior prince who founded the great Mali Empire in 1235, which, at its height, stretched across the West African savannah to the Atlantic shores. Sunjata’s legacy continues to be felt in many ways. During his time as emperor he established many of the cultural norms that remain in practice today—including the close relationship between patron and musician that is the hallmark of so much music in Mali.

The word “time” is meant to denote both “rhythm,” an important element in balafon performance, and “epoch,” since the composition sets out to evoke the kinds of musical sounds that might have been heard in Sunjata’s time, drawing on older styles of balafon playing which Lassana Diabaté learned while studying with elder masters of the instrument in Guinea.

Each of the first four movements depicts a character who played a central role in Sunjata’s life, and each is fronted by one of the four instruments of the quartet. The fifth movement brings the quartet together in equality to portray the harmonious and peaceful reign of this great West African emperor who lived nearly eight centuries ago.

1. Sumaworo. Sumaworo Kante was the name of the sorcerer blacksmith king, Sunjata’s opponent, who usurped the throne of Mande, a small kingdom on the border of present-day Guinea and Mali, to which Sunjata was the rightful heir. Sumaworo was a fearsome and powerful character who wore human skulls as a necklace. The balafon originally belonged to him and its sound was believed to have esoteric powers. (This movement is dedicated to the viola.)

2. Sogolon. Sogolon Koné was Sunjata’s mother, a wise buffalo woman who came from the land of Do, by the Niger river in the central valley of Mali, where the music is very old and pentatonic and sounds like the roots of the blues. It was predicted that Sogolon would give birth to a great ruler, and so two hunters brought her to Mande, where she married the king. But her co-wives were jealous and mocked her son. When Sunjata’s father died, Sunjata’s half-brother took the throne, and Sunjata went into exile with his mother. (This movement is dedicated to the second violin.)

3. Nana Triban. Nana Triban was Sunjata’s beautiful sister. When Sunjata went into exile, the sorcerer blacksmith wrested the throne from Sunjata’s half-brother. So the people of Mande went to find Sunjata to beg him to return and help overthrow Sumaworo. Sunjata gathered an army from all the neighboring kingdoms. But it seemed that Sumaworo was invincible, drawing on his powers of sorcery to evade defeat.

Finally, Nana Triban intervened. She used her skills of seduction to trick Sumaworo into revealing the secret of his vulnerability, escaping before the act was consummated. Armed with this knowledge, Sunjata was victorious, restoring peace to the land, and building West Africa’s most powerful empire. (This movement is dedicated to the cello.)

4. Bala Faseké. Bala Faseké Kouyaté was Sunjata’s jeli (griot, or hereditary musician), and his instrument was the balafon, with its enchanting sound of rosewood keys and buzzing resonators. Bala Faseké was much more than just a musician: he was an adviser, educator, a go-between, and a loyal friend to Sunjata. And, of course, he was an astonishing virtuoso. The Mali Empire would never have been formed without the music of Bala Faseké, and the history of West Africa would have been very different. (This movement is dedicated to the first violin.)

5. Bara kala ta. The title means, “he took up the archer’s bow.” Sunjata was unable to walk for the first seven years of his life; as a result, his mother was mercilessly taunted by her co-wives: “Is this the boy who is predicted to be king ... who pulls himself along the ground and steals the food from our bowls?” (This is why he is called “Sunjata,” meaning “thief-lion.”)

Finally, unable to take the insults any longer, Sunjata stood up on his own two feet—a moment that was immortalized in a well-known song, a version of which became the national anthem of Mali. In little time, he became a gifted archer and revealed his true nature as a leader.

This final movement makes subtle reference to the traditional tune in praise of Sunjata, known to all Mande griots. It brings together the quartet in a tribute to this great ruler—and the role that music played in his life.

Notes about Sunjata’s Time by Lucy Durán

Composition Process

For the composition of Sunjata’s Time, Diabaté first recorded the piece on his own instrument, the balafon. The recording was then transcribed and arranged for string quartet by Jacob Garchik. Hear Diabaté’s original balafon recordings here.

About Fodé Lassana Diabaté

Born into a family of virtuoso balafon players, Mali’s Lassana Diabaté has been feted as one of the country’s most gifted players of the balafon, performing and recording with Mali’s top artists. Lassana was a member of the Grammy-nominated Mali-Cuba collaboration, AfroCubism. He is the leader of Trio Da Kali, a trio of Malian griots whose aim is to bring back forgotten repertoires and styles of the Mande griot tradition, both at home and internationally in collaboration with musicians from other cultures. Trio Da Kali made its US debut in concert with Kronos in 2013.

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