US customs dismantled 'impossible to replace' instrument, Mali musician says

  • Harp-like kora arrived in pieces in Paris with note from TSA
  • ‘Would US customs have dared to dismantle a Stradivarius?’

Malian musician Ballaké Sissoko has accused US border officials of breaking his “impossible to replace” musical instrument during a security check.

Sissoko plays the kora, a west African instrument whose 21 strings can sound similar to a harp. US border officials said they did not open the instrument case.

“Would US customs have dared to dismantle a Stradivarius?” asked a statement posted on Sissoko’s Facebook page. “In its own way, that is what has just happened to Ballaké.”

Sissoko checked his kora on a flight from New York, where he had just ended his US tour, to his home in Paris.

At home after the flight on Tuesday, Sissoko found that his kora, which was made to his specifications, had the neck removed, and the strings, bridge and amplification system had been taken apart.

“Even if all the components that have been dissembled were intact, it takes weeks before a kora of this calibre can return to its previous state of resonance,” the Facebook statement said. “These kinds of custom-made koras are simply impossible to replace. They are certainly not available in shops.”

Ballake Sissoko plays Nalesonko

The statement said a baggage inspection notice from the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), written in Spanish, had been left in the bag. The notice said a security agent had inspected the case and apologized for any inconvenience it had caused.

The TSA denied opening the instrument case. “It is most unfortunate that Mr Sissoko’s instrument was damaged in transport. However, after a thorough review of the claim, it was determined that TSA did not open the instrument case because it did not trigger an alarm when it was screened for possible explosives,” a TSA spokesperson told the Guardian in an email.

The TSA is part of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which last week issued a new travel ban on people traveling from four countries: Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan and Tanzania.

The statement compared US officials’ dismantling of the instrument to that of jihadists in Mali who attempt to silence music through violence and destruction. It continued: “Would they have dared do such a thing to a white musician playing a classical instrument? What does this tell us about the attitude of the administration towards African musicians? This is an unprovoked and sad act of aggression, a reflection of the kind of cultural ignorance and racism that is taking over in so many parts of the world and that endangers the best of musicians from Africa and elsewhere.”

Sissoko’s fans called the incident “horrific”.

The bestselling fantasy author NK Jemisin tweeted: “WHAT. Oh my God. I write to Mr Sissoko’s music. This is horrific.”

Just unbelievable. Mr. Sissoko is a griot, part of a tradition going back centuries. His kora is physically beautiful, just an aural dream to listen to. See and hear it here:

— N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin) February 6, 2020

Author Steve Silberman compared the instrument’s destruction to “dismantling Coltrane’s saxophone or Itzhak Perlman’s violin” on Twitter.


Amanda Holpuch

The GuardianTramp

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