Malian rhythms stir emotions

| Bonnie Chen 27 May 2019

Le French May has probably brought the world closer to us. Not only does it bring western art but this time, kora, a well-known west African music instrument.

Malian kora virtuoso Ballake Sissoko staged a spectacular solo performance in Hong Kong earlier this month, as one of the stops of his tour in this part of the world.

For centuries, the beautiful sound of the 21-string lute-bridge-harp instrument has conquered the hearts of music lovers. The instrument is still widely played in West African countries such as Mali, Senegal, Guinea, and the Gambia, etc.

Sissoko said kora music styles vary in different countries including the use of chords. However, he said the diverse ethnicity of Mali allows the integration of various cultures, making Malian kora sounds stand out.

The body of the kora is made of a large gourd cut in half covered with animal skin.

The dainty and graceful sound of kora resembles that of the harp, but it can sound as punchy and zestful as flamenco guitar when both hands pluck the strings. It can be easily fused with other music genres including jazz, classical, popular, and folk music, etc.

For instance, Sissoko has recorded with French cellist Vincent Segal and Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Maria Enrico Einaudi, who is known for composing scores for films and TV series such as "The Intouchables" and "Doctor Zhivago".

He recalled playing kora with pipa with a friend over dinner in Paris once. He has recorded with pipa and guzheng player Liu Fang, and Indian flute bansuri player Henri Tournier in the album "Silk Sound". Also in his memories were performances with musicians of different nationalities and their influences over each other.

"I learnt techniques from other musicians, like flamenco guitar, to bring to my repertoires. Other musicians also learn from me."

The kora music was mainly passed down by oral tradition especially descendants of the Mali Empire, which thrived during the 13-15th centuries in West Africa. They belong to the griot or jali family, who is a repository of oral tradition and is often seen as a leader due to his or her position as an advisor to royal personages.

The instrument existed as early as the 14th century but the score was not written until the 20th century.

Drawn by the kora, Sissoko picked up the instrument at a very young age. His father Djelimady Sissoko, a notable kora player, then gave him formal training.

Another celebrated Malian kora player Toumani Diabate even had 70 generations of musicians preceding him. Sissoko and Diabate, who are cousins, used to play together. However, Sissoko explained that each took his own path and the schedule did not allow them to play together.

Sona Jobarteh, the first female professional kora player, who has performed in Hong Kong two years ago, is the cousin of Diabate.

Sissoko is now passing down kora to his 8-year-old daughter.

While Sissoko played rather technical pieces in the first half of the concert, the second half was more sentimental and affectionate.

Dressed in a traditional Malian outfit, he recalled his wife and the newborn not being able to see his performance because of some visa issue, and the experience inspired him to write a piece of music that he played in the second half.

The musician's emotions were vividly expressed through a stream of delicate notes, which contrasted with cascading vivacious notes. He even sang along sometimes.

That is also a typical example of the way Sissoko composes music as he is always inspired by things happened around him.

Not only is kora known for difficulty in playing, it is even more so when it comes to tuning. Sissoko's virtuosity is eloquently demonstrated while retuning the kora frequently by moving the leather tuning rings up and down the neck when playing. He explained this was to give more tonality to the pieces. While writing music with the kora, Sissoko said he improvises every time he performs.

His latest project will be something that he has never done before that involves rap and pop music elements.

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