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Mali: Ballaké Sissoko, the kora’s discreet champion

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Friday, 9 April 2021 15:52

Ballaké Sissoko, a Malian musician and kora player, from a family of “djéli”. For his new album "Djourou". In Paris, on 8 March 2021. Claire Delfino for JA

Malian virtuoso Ballaké Sissoko has launched a new album called Djourou, which features eight guest artists. In it, the master stands back to allow the kora to shine through, and gives it new life.

Ballaké Sissoko only leaves his house at sunset.

At around 6pm, he can be seen, with a cap on his head, sitting in front of his large family plot in one of those plastic armchairs with an infinitely low seat, almost touching the red dust that covers street 666 of the peaceful district of Ntomikorobougou. The place, at the foot of the presidential hill and opposite the city’s large barracks, is called the “cité des sportifs”.

In the 1970s, the state offered access to these fields to many footballers but also to great musicians, including Sissoko’s father Djelimady Sissoko, founder of Mali’s national instrumental ensemble. For at least three hours a day, the 53-year-old musician’s long fingers twirl on the kora, while visitors and friends have tea and chat around him, the animals punctuating the improvisations with a few bleats and cackles.

The scene is so routine, the atmosphere so good-natured, that one almost forgets that the man playing here – heir to a prestigious line of djélis (the Mandingo equivalent to griots) –  joined his father’s instrumental ensemble at the age of 13 before becoming a master, travelling the world’s stages and giving the kora new life.

In the albums Chamber Music (2009) and Musique de Nuit (2015), among others, he performed alongside French cellist Vincent Segal. For the 3MA project, he also teamed up with Driss El Maloumi’s Arab oud and Rajery’s Malagasy valiha. The new challenge he set himself for the No Format label was even more ambitious. He wanted to create an album called Djourou, which would bring together no less than eight guests, all with different styles. “The kora was born in Africa, but it can travel anywhere,” says Sissoko in the offices of his Parisian label. “I wanted to invite friends, share ideas, without pressure.”


The songs are often born out of improvisation, by working with the musicians. “Oxmo Puccino improvised a song on the spot, by listening to one of my melodies… and the same goes for the singer Camille, whom I met in a park near her home, things came about naturally,” says the kora player, who is smiling under his mask. With the song-rock group Feu! Chatterton, contacted on the advice of producer Laurent Bizot, the collaboration took off on a track lasting almost 10 minutes. “We can keep playing until dawn if we’re having fun,” says the musician who often participates in night sessions.

In Bamako, after his afternoon improvisation and exercises, Sissoko often takes a short break at Bla Bla, a trendy bar in the hippodrome district, where expats can eat under the starry sky. Then he goes home… to play again. But this time on the roof of his house, and often until 3 or 4 in the morning. The neighbours don’t generally complain as they are mostly musicians themselves.

Toumani Diabaté, Mali’s other great kora master, lives a few metres away and is a friend of his. 22 years ago, they co-wrote a four-handed album called Nouvelles Cordes Anciennes. The two men continue to modernise the kora’s sound. But Toumani is also in the big leagues. After working with Björk, Mathieu Chedid and Dee Dee Bridgewater, he joined the London Symphony Orchestra.

Sissoko is more discreet. For instance, he refused to put a picture of himself on the cover of his latest album. The Parisian graphic designers from the agency element(s) came up with a design featuring two palms evoking an outstretched hand that are clapping and the title “rubbing hands”, with rapper Oxmo Puccino. The soloist has no qualms about giving up the limelight and prefers long-term collaborations. “I need a relationship based on trust,” he says. “One in which we take the time to listen to one another.” It’s easy to see why he has become friends with most of the artists he has recorded with.

Away from the political wrangling

The surges of crystalline notes that are born under his fingers contrast with his words, which hesitate, take their time and hang on the edge of his lips, before rolling into the bass. Sissoko always seems to be a little elsewhere, invariably calm. “I’ve almost never seen him angry,” says Segal. “Once, I lost my temper with a rude taxi driver before a concert in Europe… He was shocked. That kind of behaviour would have been impossible for him.” However, the globetrotter certainly has reasons to complain as he is often wrongly detained at customs because of his Malian passport and his kora broke while travelling between the US and France in January 2020. Fortunately, a fundraising campaign enabled him to raise the equivalent of €10,000 to buy a new instrument.

Sissoko also carefully stays out of the political fray, refusing to play for any party leader. The musician has nonetheless become an institution. It saddens him that many of his fans from Bamako feel intimidated by him. “People are embarrassed, they feel like they can’t invite me to play at celebrations, for example,” he says. “Many are afraid they won’t be able to pay. But for me, it’s not about making money. Music feeds me in another way. I do it out of love for the kora.”

And yet, Sissoko must need some money as he remains very well surrounded. Despite a few divorces and the departure of six of his eight children to France, he currently houses about 50 people under his roof. “100 kilos of rice doesn’t last two weeks with us,” he says. Segal, who is like a brother to him, also has his own room.

And even though the cellist has not been back for two years, due to the upheavals in the country and the pandemic, the musical relationship between the two men has never broken down. He features on the album, in a piece that is a “twist on the fantastic symphony” with clarinettist Patrick Messina. “With Ballaké, we played for nights on end,” says Segal. “We’re a bit like an old married couple, we don’t really surprise each other musically anymore… but it’s always wonderful to see that we can get along so well, that the dialogue between our instruments still works!”

Although open to all collaborations, the kora master has not forgotten his African roots. In addition to Salif Keïta, he performed a duet called “Djourou” – which inspired the name of the album – with the Gambian kora player Sona Jobarteh.

He introduces the artist as his “niece”, who is part of the great Mandingo family. “There are very few women who play the kora,” says Sissoko. “The job is tiring and dangerous. And even though she is already famous, I wanted to encourage her in her approach. I think that playing this piece together moved us both.” Sissoko undoubtedly feels that this duet is also an opportunity to reaffirm with this newcomer that the kora does indeed have a future and that it will also be written by women.

Ballaké Sissoko, Djourou, No Format

With Salif Keïta, a magical take

The piece “Guelen”, which appears on the album, is an exception in several respects. It is the only one to have been recorded in Mali, at the Moffou studio (created by Keïta), while the others were recorded in France and Belgium. It is also a piece that dates back to 2012.

At the time, Vivendi had organised a training session for sound engineers. Sissoko, who often dropped by the studio to work or to assist other musicians free of charge, came across Keïta. He took the opportunity to tell him how much he appreciated his song “Guelen”. Keïta started humming the song, Sissoko grabbed his kora… and in a single take – opportunely captured by sound engineer Karim Sai and his students – the two men brought to life a new version of the song, perfectly mastered, despite the spontaneity of the exercise.

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