Ballaké Sissoko is an acclaimed Malian-born, Paris-based kora player. who comes from a rather 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 was originally scheduled for release this week — but its release has since been rescheduled for an April 19, 2021 release through his long-time label home Nø Førmat Records. The forthcoming 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.
Interestingly, 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. And as a result, the album has taken over two years to complete.
Late last year, I wrote about Djourou’s first single, the meditative and gorgeous “Frotter Les Mains,” which features acclaimed Malian-born, French-based emcee Oxmo Puccino. Deriving its title from the French phrase for “rub hands,” “Frotter Les Mains” is centered around the percussive element of Sissoko rubbing his hands, shimmering kora and Puccino’s dexterous and heady French lyrics. The end result is a song that’s simultaneously a much-needed bit of peace, thoughtfulness and kindness in a world that’s often batshit insane, a vital connection between the ancient and the modern, the West and Africa — and a reminder that hip hop has become the lingua franca that binds us all.
Djourou’s latest single, album title track “Djourou” is a mediative track that sees Sissoko collaborating with leading Gambian-born, female kora player Sona Jobarteh, centered around the duo trading shimming and expressive melodic bursts of kora paired with ethereal, interwoven vocals. Much like its immediate predecessor, the track finds its collaborators making a vital connection — this time across both contemporary African borders and across generations. 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.
“You grow up listening to somebody, and that’s the person that has in many ways been your teacher, your inspiration since a very young age,” Jobarteh says of her collaboration with the Malian-bor, Parisian-based kora master. “The first time I heard him, sounded so different to me, the tone that he gets out of the instrument is so different. He says something to me, the phrasing and the melody he picks – and he’s technically amazing, but he doesn’t let that become more than the music. That’s something I’ve always respected about him.”
Directed by Benoît Peverelli, the recently released video for “Djourou” features intimately shot footage of Sissoko and Jobarteh in the studio. The visual manages to convey the meditative peace of the song.