The Malian musician, known to folk music lovers across the world for his soul-stirring compositions like his 2013 album At Peace, fulfilled his dream of visiting India when he first performed at the World Sacred Spirit Festival in Nagaur, Rajasthan, five years ago.
By Faizal Khan
Ballaké Sissoko was happy to let the kora and the kamaicha do all the talking. The music maestro from Mali surprised himself and the audience at the Jodhpur RIFF last week when he joined Rajasthani folk musicians for an almost impromptu performance at the famous festival in the desert state.
Sissoko played the kora, the lofty, 21-string instrument that is an integral part of a centuries-old musical tradition in West Africa. The Langa musicians — Ghewar Khan, Asin Khan and Sadiq Khan — played the kamaicha, Sindhi sarangi and the dholak — all important instruments of Rajasthani folk music. “We had only half-an-hour on the concert day. We did the rehearsal and sound check together,” says Asin Khan, who along with Sissoko, was among the winners of the inaugural Agha Khan Music Prize in March this year.
When they came together on the stage at the Mehrangarh Fort venue of Jodhpur RIFF, held during October 10-14, there was little to indicate a lack of sufficient preparation. “They rehearsed something and played something else,” beams festival director Divya Bhatia, who persuaded Sissoko at the Aga Khan Music Awards ceremony in Portuguese capital Lisbon to take part in the 12th edition of his festival.
For Sissoko, who grew up watching popular Hindi films in Mali capital Bamako, his Jodhpur concert was about connecting cultures. “As a kid, I went to the cinema to watch Indian films. They had a lot of music,” recalls the maestro, who first began playing the kora, an ancient instrument in West Africa’s folk traditions, as a seven-year-old. By 13, he was already a professional performer. His father being a kora player helped him. “All my brothers too played the kora, but not professionally,” says Sissoko.
Kora meets kamaicha
The Malian musician, known to folk music lovers across the world for his soul-stirring compositions like his 2013 album At Peace, fulfilled his dream of visiting India when he first performed at the World Sacred Spirit Festival in Nagaur, Rajasthan, five years ago. “It was a dream come true. I came to Nagaur knowing the country from cinema, which was not real,” he says. “There were extraordinary Indian musicians playing instruments I had never seen before.”
What particularly caught his eye was the kamaicha. “What was fantastic in Nagaur was that I could play the kora with another African musician, Muriba Koita, play solo, and play again with a master from Rajasthan on the kamaicha,” remembers Sissoko. The kamaicha player was Ghewar Khan, the Langa musician who joined Sissoko again five years later at the Jodhpur RIFF. “I saw the kora for the first time on the Paris metro,” says Ghewar Khan about one of his own concerts abroad, before meeting the Malian kora maestro in Nagaur.
Like the kamaicha, kora players in West Africa perform at weddings and birthdays.
“Traditionally, we played the kora at important events in people’s lives,” says Sissoko. “In the past, the kora players were restricted to their regions. Now, if you are good, you are invited everywhere,” he adds. A traditional kora instrument had 17 strings before musicians began adding further to help them play more tunes. “One musician even went to 22 strings, but he died soon and the other musicians took away the 22nd string and made it 21,” says Sissoko.
Peace and politics
The kora players come from West African tradition of griots, who were storytellers well respected in society. “The kora is a very important instrument in Western Africa, especially in the mountainous territories of Mali, Senegal and Gambia,” says Sissoko. “The kora is in the heart of the spirit of the region. It was also the traditional instrument of the griots, who told folk tales to the emperor. I am from a griot family,” he says.
After centuries of performing for the kings, the kora players today use their rich heritage to unite the warring communities for strengthening West Africa’s democracy. Mali has seen signs of progress after the peace accord in 2015 among ethnic factions while Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo have all been victims of civil wars and religious strife. “There were problems in my country. I want people to live happily together without fighting,” says Sissoko, whose At Peace album is about diffusing a message of unity.
Sissoko, who has collaborated with renowned musicians like French cello player Vincente Segal, compatriot and renowned karo player Toumani Diabate and American singer Henry Saint Clair Fredericks (known as Taj Mahal), likens the kora to the Niger river flowing through the conflict-ridden West Africa.
In fact, Badjourou, one of his compositions, is about the Niger river that runs through the many villages in West Africa integrating music from everywhere. “Badjouru can be many things like mother or motherland,” says Sissoko.
At the Jodhpur RIFF last week, Sissoko’s idea of connected communities flowed beyond continents to strike a rare unity between African and Indian folk traditions.
The writer is a freelancer