The 16-piece collective Balimaya Project, winners of the Newcomer award, arrived on Songlines’ radar with the release of their thrilling debut album Wolo So on Jazz re:freshed in 2021. Led by UK-based composer, arranger and djembé player, Yahael Camara Onono and featuring members of other London-based outfits KOKOROKO and SEED Ensemble, the group formed in 2018 with the aim of synthesising London’s vibrant nu-jazz scene with the traditional Mandé repertoire and folklore of West Africa.
The word balimaya translates as ‘the essence of kinship’ in the Maninka language and the band’s songs articulate the experience of the UK’s African diaspora. Balafon and kora blend with blazing horns, keyboards, guitars, call‑and‑response vocals and chants, all underpinned by driving polyrhythms. Drawing on the spirit of similarly expansive big band ensembles led by the likes of Fela Kuti and Sun Ra before them, the result is a sound which, in the words of our review of the album, ‘honours the past and reimagines the future.’
Born in London to Nigerian and Senegalese parents, Onono was given his first talking drum at the age of six and began playing the djembé at the age of eight. “I was so lucky to have been taught by an amazing master and father figure, Sidiki Dembélé, who informed me of much of my rich heritage in West Africa,” he says. “I’d always had a dream to bring my experiences with the diaspora and the continent together, using the medium of music and the djembé to bind the two worlds together… We want to present and preserve our culture in a way that resonates in the most authentic way possible. Members of every age contribute. Intergenerational transmission is especially important as we’re working with folkloric music, and this is how the youth are initiated into tradition.”
Songlines is proud to have played a small part in championing Balimaya at the outset of what promises to be a glittering career. “The love and support that the magazine has shown us since the release of our debut album has been a real checkpoint for us in our career,” Onono says. “Songlines is where I learned about a lot of the great musicians that I admired growing up and to be counted among them is an amazing feeling. Hopefully this award is a sign of things to come.”