Once my ten year infatuation with one Toumani Diabaté album (Kaira) left space for another kora player, I found Ballaké Sissoko. When I was nineteen I went to India to learn Carnatic Violin. After two months of listening I realised there was no such thing as “Carnatic Violin.” There were only Carnatic violinists. Every one as different as the next. Ballaké Sissoko and Toumani Diabaté illustrate this uniqueness…two different artists creating two different images of the same instrument.
Chamber Music: an album by Vincent Segal and Ballaké Sissoko
The first two pieces I played from Ballaké Sissoko came from his collaboration with Vincent Segal, a recording called Chamber Music – sublime conversations between kora and cello, and as true an instance of chamber music as there ever was.
The first piece I transcribed was “Ma-Ma” FC, a composition by Vincent Segal. The kora part translated beautifully as a clear and simple cycle on the guitar. I simplified it further to make it really easy to play. Just a simple motif to make the guitar sing. This motif continues in the kora throughout the piece, except for an improvisation where the cello takes over the rhythmic cycle. But the rest of the piece is simply this flowing line, accompanied by the cello’s melody.
I then began to embed the cello themes inside the kora’s cycle, just simple interjections which subtly change the harmony. The result was a simple but very beautiful piece.
Chamber Music / Soundiata
The title track of the album, Chamber Music, is a composition by Ballaké Sissoko based on a traditional kora piece called Soundiata. Again the cello adds melodic content, this time echoed by the kora lines. This echo is achieved on the solo guitar by changing the register and harmony of the melodies, again creating a simple but poignant piece of music. Just before the recording of One Night on Earth I was playing this piece and broke off into a single note ostinato, accompanied by a spacious melodic improvisation. This sonic space was closer to what I had created in my interactions with Egberto Gismonti’s compositions (The Sound of Water).
Sissoko: The Meeting Point Between Gismonti and Kora
This similarity gave me a vision: a meeting point between the music of the kora and the music of Egberto Gismonti and my own compositions. I am thinking more and more that this meeting point is to be found in a transformation and improvisation of the music of Ballaké Sissoko.
After I made One Night on Earth I sent the two tracks from Chamber Music to the publishers of the compositions who forwarded them to Ballaké and Vincent. They were in Cabo Verde. We stared talking and I found out for the first time that Vincent had played a lot with Nana Vasconcelos who made Danca das Cabecas and many more beautiful recordings with Egberto Gismonti. It seemed like a closing of a circle and a confirmation of my vision. But the exploration of Ballaké’s music on the guitar will tell the story in time.
For now these two tracks on One Night on Earth, Chamber Music and “Ma-Ma FC,” will have to promise what is to come.