On March 1st, 2013, Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal came to Washington D.C. on tour to promote their new album, At Peace. Ballake is a celebrated kora player from Mali. Segal is an accomplished cellist from France. Kora and cello and are both string instruments — 21 and 4 respectively. The kora’s strings are plucked by both hands while the cello’s strings are bowed and sometimes plucked.
Both instruments are associated with a classical repertoire and playing style that demand musicians years of discipline and formal education. Professional cellists generally train in music conservatories while professional kora masters get their training through a traditional system of oral transmission from generation to generation. Ballake and Vincent are the first masters of strings from such different, yet similar worlds — to tune up together and play. At Peace is their second duo album, following their 2009 freshman release, Chamber Music.
As noted in several articles and reviews since, the impact of this unique duo’s partnership is astounding to hear and witness live. Without losing the slightest degree of musical integrity of their respective traditions, they have created something totally new and exciting, yet timeless.
I caught up with them during sound check for an interview and captured a bit of their tuning-in time plus some close-ups of their instruments and playing techniques. Let’s take a look.
The mutual entente and sensitivity in those moments we were able to capture during sound check extended to their performance with even more power and grace. We’ll see that in the third clip below, but just after sound check, we had a warm conversation about how they met, about Ballake’s kora, the music of course, and how they felt things were generally going in Mali today.
Ballake speaks French and Bambara so Vincent had the task of translating for Ballake and speaking for himself as well. By the time we started recording the interview, we’d established that I could speak and sing in Bambara, so that added a certain chaleur to the moment. I’m singing “Denko,” a folksong I learned from a well-known singer, Bintu Sidie, in Mali many years ago.
I found Vincent’s observations about how war often cuts the oral transmission process particularly insightful and perhaps useful for those preparing to help Mali rebuild. The country’s northern regions in particular may be at high risk of losing their musical traditions. Vincent’s analogy of their music as branching out from the “big tree” of Mandingo traditions [and others he mentioned — such as Songrai and Fulani (Pheul) traditions] but not “cutting the tree” is marvelous. Its beautiful as a musical concept and model for sure, but also as it could apply to other areas of our cultural lives today.
My third clip features one song they performed during their concert. It’s called “Ma-Ma HC” and comes from their first album Chamber Music. It catches Vincent at the tail end of a funny story he told us about how he and Ballake’s sons (teenagers about the same age) play soccer together but won’t come to hear their fathers play. Ballake’s son Mohamed plays Fist Team for PSG (Paris St. Germain) and whose feet are said to move “as fast as his fathers’ fingers”. Though the boys are too cool for their fathers’ music, their daughters come to hear them from time to time.
Vincent Segal lives in France and Ballake Sissoko lives in Bamako. We three said goodbye with the hopeful promise of meeting in Bamako some day soon where everything, including the evening jam sessions under the moon and stars we hope to make, is at peace.