In conversation with Kora player Ballaké Sissoko

Ballaké Sissoko recently performed with Rajasthani folk musicians like Ghever Khan and Asin Khan Langa in front of a packed audience at the 2019 Jodhpur RIFF

In conversation with Kora player Ballaké Sissoko

Murtaza Ali Khan

Ballaké Sissoko, the world famous player of kora—a 21-string instrument, used extensively in West Afria, which finds a mention in the writings of the legendary 14th century Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta—recently performed with Rajasthani folk musicians like Ghever Khan and Asin Khan Langa in front of a packed audience at the 2019 Jodhpur RIFF. “Even with the difficulties of the attuning the kora to the sounds of the sarangi and the kamancheh I really had a great time performing with the likes of Asin and Ghever,” revealed Sissoko.

Sissoko, who hails from Mali, has been playing kora from a very young age under the tutelage of his father Djelimady Sissoko. Ballaké is known for his international collaborations with the French cellist Vincent Ségal with whom he also has two albums titled Chamber Music and Musique de Nuit, both released by an independent French label called No Format! Improvisations are an important part of Sissoko’s musical repertoire. “While I mostly play my old compositions I really like to improvise from time to time, depending on the place I perform at and what I am feeling at the time of the performance. Music allows me to express my feelings to the world at large,” rejoiced Sissoko.

In order to appreciate the challenge of playing an instrument like kora one only needs to remember that a player just has ten fingers in total to manage all the twenty-one strings, each playing a different note. Interestingly, the instrument doesn't fit into any particular category of musical instruments, but rather several. Since the strings run in two divided ranks it is actually a double harp. Also, they do not end in a soundboard but are held in notches on a bridge and so it is essentially a bridge harp. It is lute too because the strings originate from a string arm and cross a bridge directly supported by a resonating chamber. Therefore, kora must be classified as a "double-bridge-harp-lute".

Having finally made his Jodhpur RIFF debut with two back-to-back breathtaking performances (solo as well as group performance with Asin and Ghever) at Mehrangarh Fort’s iconic Old Zenana Courtyard, Sissoko couldn’t hide his new-found love for the festival. “This place is really beautiful. It now holds a special place in my heart. I heard about the festival from my musician friends who earlier performed at Jodhpur RIFF. I am really impressed by the enthusiasm shown by the people present. It’s really heartening to see such a lively and receptive audience,” acknowledged Sissoko. He added, “When you like something very much then it is easy to do it. It’s only difficult when you don’t feel like doing it. I have great admiration for the rich Indian musical tradition and so it was a great honor to perform with Indian musicians in front of a packed crowd.”

The 51 year old kora player has also worked with the noted American blues musician Taj Mahal aka Henry Saint Clair Fredericks. Ballaké came to fame through his duet with fellow Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté back in the year 1999. “I consider myself really fortunate because since the age of 13, I have been discovering new things about music with no end. All the time I am traveling I am making new discoveries and it makes me really happy,” rejoiced Sissoko.

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