Last weekend, at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, we were treated to a stunning display of instrumental virtuosity by Ballake Sissoko, kora master from Mali, and Vincent Segal, French conservatory-trained cellist. Since 2009 the pair have recorded three albums together, delicate and lovely conversations between instruments from two classical music traditions.
I first registered the name of Ballake Sissoko in 1997 when he and fellow kora master Toumani Diabate released New Ancient Strings, their tribute to their fathers, Sidiki Diabate and Djelimadi Sissoko, who in the early 1970s had recorded Ancient Strings, the album that first brought the rich classical tradition of the ancient harp of West Africa to world attention.
Later, I noticed his name on series of collaborative albums that brought together musicians from different traditions: Diario Mali (2003), a collaboration with Italian contemporary classical pianist Ludovico Einaudi; 3MA (2008), on which he played alongside Moroccan oud player Driss el Maloumi and Madgascan valiha player Rajery; and then Chamber Music (2009), the first of three CDs he has recorded with Vincent Ségal. At Peace followed in 2012, and then Musique de Nuit last year.
The Manchester concert is part of a short tour by Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Ségal to promote their recent album. They begin at barely a whisper: Sissoko’s long and elegant fingers brushing the strings of the kora with the lightness and delicacy of a feather. Ségal follows, coaxing melodious sounds from his cello both with the bow and by plucking the strings. The music which the pair make is both syncopated and tranquil: you feel as if you are in a boat up some African river, being rocked gently on the water.
Between numbers Ségal (who speaks haltingly in English on behalf of them both, since Sissoko speaks only French) makes the observation that, while it’s commonplace to refer to African instruments like the kora as ‘traditional’, similar European stringed instruments such as the cello, violin or harp are called ‘classical’. But, he points out, Sissoko’s kora represents a classical tradition like the cello’s, with a similar pedigree going back centuries, and every bit as challenging to master as the Western instrument.
[A historical aside: the earliest European reference to the kora in European literature is in Travels in Interior Districts of Africa (1799), by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park who had been commissioned by the African Association in London to explore the Niger River and determine its source, direction of flow and potential usefulness for British economic interests. Park made close observations of all aspects of life along the river, including the music played by the locals, and the instruments on which they played:
I have now to add a list of their music instruments, the principal of which are – the koonting, a sort of guitar with three strings; the korro, a large harp with eighteen strings; the simbing, a small harp with seven strings; the balafou, an instrument composed of twenty pieces of hard wood of different lengths, with the shells of gourds hung underneath to increase the sound…]
So playing the kora is a tradition that goes back a long way, and it may be that members of Sissoko’s family have been part of that tradition for just as long, since he comes from a long line of jali, the musicians who act as traditional historians, genealogists and storytellers and pass their skills on to their descendants. Sissoko’s playing makes this abundantly clear, a dazzling display of cascading notes drawn from an ancient-looking instrument, the leather tuning rings on its long neck from time to time requiring his skilful attention. Sissoko plays more gently, with less attack, than other kora players I have heard.
Vincent Segal does some extraordinary things with the cello: from pizzicato plucking to unconventional bowing and even, during the second number, coaxing the buzzing, resonating tones of the ngoni from his instrument. And not only the cello: at the beginning of ‘Ma-Ma FC’, Segal left his seat to move around the stage shaking a kashaka, or African hand percussion, providing a rhythmic beat that punctuated Sissoko’s rippling kora work.
There were many highlights in the two hour-long sets, with several tunes drawn as far as I could tell from Chamber Music and the recent Musique de Nuit albums. On the title track from Chamber Music, Sissoko laid down a languid, flowing melody, echoed by Ségal before he switched to a propulsive, sawing bowed rhythm. On ‘Niandou’, the opening track of the recent album, the pair both picked at the strings of their instruments in a call and response pattern, while Brazilian influences could be heard on ‘Passa Quatro’, which Ségal afterwards explained had been written in the highlands of São Paulo state, inspired by local dance tunes.
But the duo must also have delved into their unrecorded repertory, for this was an evening filled with instrumental duets that, overall, created the languid, hypnotic sensation that tends to come from traditional acoustic Malian music. Some might imagine that mixing the classically-trained Ségal (he was once a member of the National Orchestra of France) with Malian kora means this isn’t really traditional African music.
But there’s a rootsy, earthy feel to the music created by this duo, and anyway, Ségal’s musical background is so varied – replete with cross-border collaborations and past explorations in electronica and hip-hop with his band Bumcello -that his playing isn’t strictly European classical in style, so he appeared – and sounded – perfectly comfortable playing alongside a traditional Malian kora player. Communication between the two was unspoken but close, with Vincent sometimes glancing across at his partner with a delighted smile on his face or Ballake occasionally sighing with pleasure as a lovely melody rose from Vincent’s bowing.
An evening spent rocking gently, or Ségal put it in a newspaper interview, ‘Twenty-five strings, two friends, music and speaking without words’.
Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Ségal: live at Festival Les Suds, Arles, July 2010