Musical Collaborations: Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal

by Thomas Brett

Mandinka kora music is among my favorite sound worlds. The kora is a 21-string harp-lute traditionally played by oral historians in many parts of West Africa. I travelled to Mali (home to many Mandinka people) in 2002 to learn to play the kora.  Though I didn’t get all that far in three weeks, I learned the basic building block pattern (kumbengo) for an old piece called Allah lake and started to get a feel for how variations (birimintingo) are spun from this rhythmic web.  You play the kora using just two thumbs and two index fingers. To a complete novice like me, it feels tricky to negotiate those 21 strings in such a small space.  Even more daunting is playing a melody, its accompaniment, and variations on them–all while keeping alive that cycling smooth groove that makes kora music hum with life.

Here is a short clip of famous kora player Toumani Diabate showing how the elements–what he calls here the “bass”, the “accompaniment” and the “improvisation”– of a kora piece called “Salaman” are all woven together:

Ballaké Sissoko is a jali from Mali and also a virtuoso kora player.  I first learned about him through his duet recording with Toumani Diabate, New Ancient Strings (1999).  Recently, Sissoko collaborated with French cellist Vincent Segal to make Chamber Music (Six Degrees Records), a series of duets.  Here is a clip of the two musicians making music together:

It is perhaps notable that Chamber Music is distributed through Six Degrees, a record label specializing in hybrid musics that aspire to be truly global in scope (or at least in ambition), especially those that blend styles from the “world music” canon–musics from outside of the Euro-American pop and classical traditions and made by an international roster of artists–with the technologies, sounds and structures of electronic musics.

Sissoko and Segal’s Chamber Music isn’t electronic music in any way, but it is an overt kind of fusion of traditions–what the Six Degrees website describes as “a quieter, more refined ‘world music'”–and it reminds me of some observations of Michel Chanan which I quoted in an earlier post:

“Techniques are extended, new instrumental combinations are tried, fusions and hybrids appear and proceed to reproduce . . . Is ‘world music’ only a commercial phenomenon, or does it represent an authentic cultural undercurrent?  Is the idea just another form of cultural expropriation and exploitation or could it possibly represent a true growth of awareness of other musics?”

At least within the realm of the Sissoko and Segal’s music making together, there does seem to be “awareness of other musics” on display.  You can hear, for instance, Segal play some of those kumbengo bassline-like patterns, melodies are traded back and forth, drones are offered in mutual support, and so on, in a musical dialogue that includes improvisation and new takes on old compositions.  One could probably safely say that for both musicians, “techniques are extended” too.