Ballaké Sissoko: picking up the pieces after US customs broke his kora

Last February, Sissoko’s historic instrument was disassembled on a flight home to Paris. Bolstered by a new kora, his latest album revives their borderless journey

In the Malian language Bamanankan, djourou – the title of Ballaké Sissoko’s forthcoming album – means string. “It’s the string that connects me to others,” he says. For this master of the kora, it is also the string that broke.

Last February, Sissoko returned to Paris after a US tour with his trio 3MA to find that border officials in New York had dismantled his kora. The neck, bridge, strings and custom-built pickup had been removed from the body, made of calabash and parchment. The instrument was beyond repair, and made headlines around the world.

The Transportation Security Administration denied opening the flight case, but an official advisory notice stuck inside suggested otherwise. One year on, the loss still hurts. “It’s never easy to see your instrument broken,” says Sissoko. “And the way we were separated, I never wished it would go like that.” Not to mention the doubt cast on his story by the TSA and Facebook commenters. “People thinking I had broken my instrument on purpose, that was shocking to hear. I’m not a salesperson or a luthier. It takes the most amount of effort to get to know the instrument.”

Djourou comes with a new kora for Sissoko (from French luthier and long-term collaborator Kaelig) and a healing of sorts. People from all over the world contributed to the GoFundMe set up by his producer to replace the instrument. “Kora music moves my soul to a higher place,” said one donor: “your music has lifted me through grief.” “Ballaké is a world treasure,” said another. Sissoko was deeply moved.

Ballaké Sissoko: Kora ft Camille – video

The kora has a mesmerising quality. Toumani Diabaté, Sissoko’s erstwhile collaborator and arguably the world’s most famous kora master, has won Grammys for his dazzling skill. Sissoko can match Diabate’s virtuosity when he needs to, but for many listeners, he brings an unsurpassed emotion and rootedness in the ancient sound. He chooses his koras for their softness of sound and grounds every recording with steady bass, a light touch and only those notes that matter.

The first time we speak via video chat, Sissoko, 53, is alone at home in France with four children under the age of eight. In normal times, he takes them back to Mali every chance he gets. Alternating between French (his sixth language) and Bamanankan (which his kids understand even if they reply in French), he talks about his multilingual, musical childhood as he navigates quarrels, tears and an unfamiliar TV remote. “Yes,” I hear Sissoko say in a gentle voice. “I’ll find you your dummy. Yes, I’ll put the TV on.” Two-year-old Bassirou hums the theme tune before the programme kicks in. Sissoko laughs as he reappears in the frame. “I’m never here! I’m always on the road!”

Sissoko’s own father, Djelimady, looms large on the new album. The first track, Demba Kunda, is named for the Gambian village where Djelimady was born. “There are only six families,” says Sissoko. “I went once when I was two, with my mother. My father had two wives and every three months, one of them had to go to look after his mother.” Now for a documentary, he is preparing to go back for the first time. British ethnomusicologist and broadcaster Lucy Durán is making a film about him and his story for French network TV5Monde, with funding from the Aga Khan Foundation.

The making of a kora player of Sissoko’s ilk continues an oral tradition spanning centuries. He is of the hereditary Mande musicians called jeli (a term he prefers to the French, griot), who trace their lineage back to the founding of the Mande empire by Sundiata Keita in around 1235. In 1961, following Mali’s declaration of independence from France, the country’s first president, Modibo Keita, founded the Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali as a nation-building cultural showcase.

Djelimady and Sidiki Diabaté came from the Gambia to Bamako to play in the ensemble, and so impressed Keita they were given a plot of land to share beneath the presidential palace. Toumani was born in 1965; Ballaké in 1967. “Almost every evening our fathers would play before us, and that’s how we learned,” he says, “by listening, without touching the instrument.” They witnessed their fathers make history with their joint 1970 album, Cordes Anciennes (Ancient Strings) – the first instrumental kora recording. In 1999, Toumani and Sissoko released their album New Ancient Strings in response.

When Djelimady died in 1981, the ensemble director decided that Ballaké would take his place, so that he could earn a government salary and look after his family. He was 13. He credits this event for his ability to calmly deal with whatever life throws at him. “In our culture, you know, we adapt,” he says. “Here you’d say, ‘Oh he’s too young, you can’t give him that responsibility’. It’s not like that in Africa. As the oldest son, I didn’t have a choice. The weight of that responsibility – and the pain of my father’s passing – dawned on me slowly, as I grew older.”

To begin with, though, he was just happy to play. “The kora has always done me good, first and foremost. That feeling is what I share with whomever is listening.”

Much has been made of the international partnerships that have punctuated Sissoko’s career: he has worked with renowned players of the Cretan lyra, the Moroccan oud, the Malagasy valiha, the Chinese pipa, the piano, the blues. On Djourou, he jousts with, among others, spoken word and French psych-folk; in a composition by cellist and long-term collaborator Vincent Ségal, he riffs on a Berlioz symphonic motif.

Sissoko says his openness to other sounds was nurtured in the Ensemble. “Forty years ago, you wouldn’t find the kora being played with the guitar. The ensemble mixed up African instruments that traditionally wouldn’t have been played together either, Mande sounds with non-Mande sounds. That’s where I started thinking about expanding my horizons. They say music knows no borders. I thought I should see if that’s true.”

Ballaké Sissoko – Djourou ft Sona Jobarteh – video

Instead of collaboration, though, he talks of friendship. “For me a collaboration implies that it ends and we move on to something else. I like to work with people in the long term.”

Ask any of the artists who appear on Djourou about Sissoko and first they’ll tell you he doesn’t talk much. Ask them to define his playing and they cast about for the right words: a great silence, a holy music, something elemental, a miracle. “It’s like watching someone play water,” says French singer Camille, who appears on a song simply called Kora. “His music creates space.”

Of all the guest appearances on Djourou, it is Sona Jobarteh’s that speaks loudest. The Gambian musician and composer is breaking ground as the first woman born into a jeli family to become a professional kora player. “Sona’s father is a cousin of mine,” Sissoko says. “When I saw her playing, it made me think of my big sister, who died when she was young. My sister also picked up the kora from listening to our father – she was his first daughter.”

Since childhood, Sissoko has played for hours every day. It’s not an easy thing to do with four little kids at home. “Lockdown really got to me,” he says. The second time we speak, the kids are at school and it’s quiet. “I play when they’re not here, or throughout the night when they’re asleep. I don’t like to go out. I have a little coffee or a little glass of wine and I play, tranquille, quoi.”

His children know to not touch his kora when he puts it down, but he sends me a clip of Bassirou, on his knee, dummy in mouth, gripping the kora by the handles and plucking with tiny thumbs. “Take out your dummy,” Sissoko says, “you’re playing beautifully, take it out, voilà. Now play. Oui mon bébé, play!” The string is alive.

• Djourou is released on 9 April on Nø Førmat!


Dale Berning Sawa

The GuardianTramp

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