Ballaké Sissoko is an acclaimed Malian-born, Paris-based kora player. who comes from a deeply musical family: Sissoko is the son of equally acclaimed, kora master Djelimady Sissoko, who may be best known for his work with Ensemble Instrumental Du Mali. Drawn to the kora at a very young age, the younger Sissoko was taught the instrument by his father. Tragically. Djelmady died while his children were very young — and Ballaké stepped up to take the on the role of breadwinner, eventually taking his father’s place in the Ensemble Instrumental Du Mali.
The younger Sissoko has had a long-held fascination with genres and sounds outside of scope of the Mandika people — i.e., flamenco guitar, sitar and others — which, inspired a series of critically applauded collaborations with a diverse and eclectic array of musicians across the globe, including acclaimed French cellist Vincent Segal, Toumani Diabaté, legendary bluesman Taj Mahal and Ludovic Einaudi.
Sissoko’s 11th album Djourou is slated for an April 9, 2021 release through his long-time label home Nø Førmat Records. The album will feature solo compositions and a number of thoughtful collaborations with a collection of diverse and unexpected artists outside of the Mandinka musical genre for which his griot caste is celebrated globally, including Nouvelle Vague’s Camille, African legend Salif Keita, young, leading female kora player Sona Jobareth, the aforementioned Vincent Segal and Malian-born, French emcee Oxmo Puccino among others.
Djourou, which derives its name from the Bambara word for string, can trace its origins to when Sissoko approached Nø Førmat label head Laurent Bizot with the proposition of blending solo kora pieces with unexpected collaborations. The label and Sissoko mutually agreed that he take the time to confirm enriching and challenging partnership with artists, who were fans of Sissoko’s work. The album took a painstaking yet fruitful two years to complete.
So far I’ve written about two of Djourou‘s released singles:
- “Frotter Les Mains,” deriving its title from the French phrase for “rub hands,” the mediative track is centered around the simple percussive element of Sissoko rubbing his hands back and forth, shimmering plucked kora and Malian-born, French-based emcee Oxmo Puccino’s dexterous and heady bars in French. While being a much-needed bit of peace, thoughtfulness and empathetic connection in a world that’s often batshit insane, the two artists make a virtual connection between the ancient and the modern, the West and Africa — with an important reminder that hip hop is the lingua franca of post-modern life.
- Album title track “Djourou,” which sees Sissoko collaborating with leading Gambian-born, female kora player Sona Jobarteh. Centered around the duo holding a musical conversation by trading expressive and shimmering, melodic kora lines paired with ethereal interwoven vocals. Much like its immediate predecessor, the track finds its collaborations making a vital connection — this time across both contemporary African borders and across time. Sissoko sought out Jobarteh with a specific wish to connect with the younger generation of kora players — to rejoin with their common forebears, to weave a connective thread across borders that were unknown and unimagined to the griots of the Malian Empire’s presence over much of West Africa.
Djourou‘s latest single “Kora” features guest vocals from Nouveau Vague’s Camille. Centered around the electric interplay between Camille’s breezily coquettish vocals and Sissoko’s expressive and melodic bursts of plucked kora, the song is a love letter to the kora itself that suggests the instrument holds an ancient, mystical power.
“When I met Ballaké, we said to ourselves that to talk to each other we had to play together, and that’s how we spoke best: we played under a tree, outside, and part of the melody came to me like that,” Camille recalls. “I wanted to write a song about the kora, the mystery of this instrument, and I started asking him questions: about woodwind, etc. but it’s not a luthier’s song, it’s a love song. Love is fire, love is water. And the sound of the kora is like flowing water.”
“Kora,” was realized with a simple yet strikingly shot bit of live footage shot in Paris’ Bois de Vincennes Park by Julien Borel and Vladimir Cagnolari , which captures the duo’s incredible musical simpatico.