Meet NYC's Newly Crowned Subway Busker Balla Tounkara, a kora player from Mali, is the winner of the Bryant Park Project's NYC Subway Busker Poll and one of the city's newest official underground musicians.
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Meet NYC's Newly Crowned Subway Busker

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Meet NYC's Newly Crowned Subway Busker

Meet NYC's Newly Crowned Subway Busker

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A couple of weeks ago, 15 musicians competed for a spot to do their thing on New York City subway platforms in the Music under New York contest. Yesterday, the winners were announced. Among them was kora player and singer-songwriter Balla Tounkara. Balla is also the winner of the very prestigious BPP Busker Contest. Four were nominated. We put videos up of their auditions. More than 6,000 of you voted, and Balla came out on top. The prize, well, more of prize for us than for him, he joined us yesterday in studio for a little concert. It's no A Train platform, but it does usually smell a little better.

(Soundbite of reverse playback)

MARTIN: So first, congratulations.

Mr. BALLA TOUNKARA (Musician): Thank you.

MARTIN: On both prizes.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Thank you.

MARTIN: And before we get to hear a little bit of your music, tell me about this instrument. This is such a dramatic instrument. It's called a kora, and I'm looking at it, and it looks like some kind of harp.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Right. It is a mother of the harp. This is before harp.

MARTIN: And the base is a gourd.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Right.

MARTIN: And then what's on the other side?

Mr. TOUNKARA: That's a cow skin.

MARTIN: And I see - I notice on the front side of the gourd, there's some decoration. Can you explain what's on there?

Mr. TOUNKARA: That's my home town, my village. That's my village. That's the village I was born, is just the green and dark, no high-tech nothing, no electricity, no phone, nothing.

MARTIN: In Mali.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Yeah, in Mali.

MARTIN: Does it still look like this?

Mr. TOUNKARA: Yeah, it looks like that. That's how they build house with the mud and concrete, like, kind of old, like, Native American house look like that.

MARTIN: And how did you pick up this instrument, is this something...?

Mr. TOUNKARA: I was born into it. It's a generation to generation. I'm a 40 generation.

MARTIN: Four generations.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Forty.

MARTIN: Forty generations of your family has been playing this instrument?

Mr. TOUNKARA: That's right.

MARTIN: Wow, so you didn't really have a choice.

Mr. TOUNKARA: I was born into it.

MARTIN: What if you decided, eh, I don't want to do that, I want to be a doctor?

Mr. TOUNKARA: Right, I wanted to do that. My father actually wanted me to be a businessman. But I said no, I like to pick up the tradition, and I love to share with the rest of the world.

MARTIN: And so you began playing this and you decided you wanted to take this music and export it. How did you get to New York?

Mr. TOUNKARA: Ah, with the airplane!

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: With the airplane.

Mr. TOUNKARA: From Mali.

MARTIN: Why did you decide that New York subways were a place that you wanted to play music?

Mr. TOUNKARA: It's the top - the best city in the world. Whatever you go look for, it's in New York, you know? You go to Europe, you go to Asia, you go to Japan, you go to Middle East, you go to Africa - it's the whole entire world New York. You don't need to travel down what you can see the whole word here. And that's what I choose New York, yeah.

MARTIN: Well, before we get any further, I have more questions for you, but I want to get a little bit of your music going. If you don't mind.


MARTIN: Let's hear something from your new album.

(Soundbite of song "Nina")

Mr. TOUNKARA: (Singing in Mandingo)


(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. TOUNKARA: Thank you.

MARTIN: That was a beautiful song. What is it?

Mr. TOUNKARA: Yeah, that's coming out on my new album, because...

MARTIN: What's the name of that song?

Mr. TOUNKARA: "Nina." It's about my lover. It's a love song, yeah.

MARTIN: And this is a song on your new album. This is - you were telling me - your tenth album. Is that right?


Mr. TOUNKARA: It called "The Jeopardy."

MARTIN: Talk to me about playing in the subway. I mean, this music is kind of mystical and quiet...

Mr. TOUNKARA: Right.

MARTIN: And contemplative.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Right.

MARTIN: And the subway is not any of those things.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Right.

MARTIN: The subway is crazy madness, and people are going everywhere, and they've got no time to stop and listen.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Right.

MARTIN: How do you - when you set up to play, do you just ignore the fact that some people are listening, maybe, others couldn't care less?

Mr. TOUNKARA: Right, well...

MARTIN: You just play for yourself, and...

Mr. TOUNKARA: Well, it's sometimes, is a very annoying. It's very difficult, the trains noisy. But only few out of hundred people in the subway, maybe 15 percent, can be little annoying. But 85 percent they really care this, because they go, wow! What is this? Because you can't miss this instrument.


Mr. TOUNKARA: Either the way it looks, either the sound, because is very touching. This instrument belong to the griot, like is French word, which is djeli, D-J-E-L-I. We are carrying the oral story in Africa, back in the day.


Mr. TOUNKARA: I was like - I am like you, like a journalist.

MARTIN: Storyteller.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Storyteller. Because we didn't have any technology, no radio, no phone, nothing, back in the day. So the griot are storyteller, you know, by troupe playing or singing or talking, we send out the message, we inform people what's going on, like the radio.

MARTIN: Do you still us this instrument and your music to talk about news, current events, politics? Or do you sing about love mostly?

Mr. TOUNKARA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, yeah, by singing I send out the message. Like my new album, called "The Jeopardy," it means the world is in jeopardy.

MARTIN: So you have now won a spot to play, a designated spot in the New York subway system. Do you know where you get to play?

Mr. TOUNKARA: I haven't found out yet, but it's not like I'm looking for one particular spot. I'm here to share, so I want to be everywhere because...


Mr. TOUNKARA: I'm trying to share what I have, as a gift, with everybody. So, sometime I like changing different spot, because every day, if you play in the subway, you'll find somebody who never seen the kora his whole life. Every day you'll find at least ten people. I've never seen anything like that. So, I want to play everywhere, like, I want to make sure people are getting my message. That's all.

MARTIN: Hey, Balla. Thank you so much for coming in, and sharing your music. We appreciate it.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And we'll look for you in the subways.

Mr. TOUNKARA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: That was a conversation with Balla Tounkara. Go to our website if you want to check out Balla doing his thing.


Next on the show, a new movie dramatizes the battle of Haditha while trying to stick close to the facts. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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