Malian koraist Ballaké Sissoko & French cellist Vincent Ségal's present
a new take on classical Manding music
 Malian koraist Ballake Sissoko with French cellist Vincent Segal

photo by Masiar Pasquali

With the upcoming release of "Chamber Music" (Six Degrees Records; January 11, 2011) this cross cultural duo presents a music that respects both African and European traditions.

The soft-spoken Sissoko and Ségal share a powerful link with tradition, from their legacy and guiding teachers. Ségal notes, "We have the same kind of family, a son and daughter. We have the same way of life, playing these quiet instruments passionately."

When kora-player Ballaké Sissoko approached French cellist Vincent Ségal after a show, Ségal never suspected that he’d find himself several years later in the capital of Mali, Bamako, immersing himself into Manding music’s.

Ballaké Sissoko learned the traditional role of historian and musician, the djeli (Bambara for “griot”) from his father (Djelimady Sissoko). Sissoko has always sought new avenues for the kora, contributing his tastful performances on a number collaborations, from wording with internationally recognized blues musician Taj Mahal to Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi, with whom he performed at the Mali's famed "Festival in the Desert" in 2008).

Ségal also has the discipline that is the result of arduous training as a classical cellist. As a musician destined for a technically demanding role in Europe’s art tradition he spent a year with the Opéra de Lyon after completing his classical studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Lyon. Luckly an influential early teacher encouraged him not to restrict himself to just traditional European classical but to embrace and explore African, Latin, and rock music. Séga funky electric cello riffs are woven in to the trip-hop project, Bumcello. He has contributed sublime cello overdubs on a variety of projects, including Cesaria Evora and Blackalicious.

This unique paring of kora and cello is an intimate collaboration, captured at Salif Keita’s Mouffou Studio in Bamako, Mali. Though unexpected, the results of this intuitive closeness feel organic. Ségal never imagined that the curious duo would discover striking similarities in their music and lives, creating a free space for cross-cultural creativity based on deep commonalities. It is clear that Vincent Ségal is in tune Malin music. With that said I was curious to learn more about his experience of working with Ballaké and how he learned to incorporate Manding rhythmics and melody so flawlessly.

Here's a brief interview with French cellist Vincent Ségal

DG: Vincent, how did you first hear of the kora and how did you meet Ballaké?

VS: My first meeting with the kora was as a child on the radio (radio france "les chants de la terre" great show about music from around the world) then at the age of 18, my neighbour was Cheik Tidiane Seck (keyboard player), he was the first to introduce me in the music from Mali. I start playing with him and he introduce me to many musicians. Not far from our flat, was a Malian restaurant called Tam Tam Sagaie and in front of the restaurant was the late Mamadou Konté, the African promotor. So every night I would go hear Salif, Mory, Ousmane Kouyat, Djelimoussa Kouyaté, Kassté Mady and the late Kora player Fodté Kouyaté. Fodté played for me many tapes from Ballaké's father and a lot of different players like "le vieux lion" (Bassekou Kouyaté's dad Bazoumanaba Sissoko). I allways loved the atmosphere of this restaurant. Now there is the annexe of the théatre de la ville "les abesses" I meet Ballaké when he came to see me when I was playing with the band Chocolate Genius (NYC) in a festival years ago and he talked about meeting and playing when we had time in Paris (he was allways passing thru Paris when he was touring) and thats how we started.

DG: Did you spend any time in Bamako, Mali to learn the music?

VS: I have been touring in Mali, playing electric cello with bands from Ivory Coast (Ziglibiti's music) and i was passing by towns and playing with others bands , but i learn more and more in paris and london playing with mixed bands like Tama(real world) and doing sessions with Cheik, Moktar Samba, Ali Wagué etc, throughout the 80 and 90's there was a great energy in the suburbs of Paris, a lot of partys and weddings after with Ballaké I have been learning more seriously the traditional way to play but I had allready many years of practicing African music recording or playing with Papa Wemba, Ray Lema, Pierre Akendengué, Cesaria Evora , Tom Diakité, djelli Moussa Kouyaté, Diogal, Mama Ohandja; that practice (20 years of African music,or even Brazilian if i talk abaut my work with Nana Vasconcelos, Cyro Battista and Carlinhos Brown) it was helpful before playing with a maestro like Ballaké.

DG: Wow, that is impressive! How did you go about learning to play cello with the kora?

VS: it's natural , I knew before a lot of cello players like Ernst or Rufus or Dimous who played with the kora, that's easy! But it's more about the way we play with Ballaké, we are so close since many years and we use to play without saying anything all night long.

DG: I know what you mean, that's great that you have created this timeless connection. Were you able to gain any insight to Manding amd kora music via playing with musicians who's instrument was not kora but Guitar, Ngoni or Balaphone?

VS: Sure! My love in music is the kind of feeling of "Duke Ellington" ideas, you are allways inspired by musicans and instruments some times when I play with Ballaké i think a lot about Kelitigui (Balaphone) or djeli Moussa or about the doussngoni --a pentatonic hunters harp used Wassoulou music -- or the Gnawa guembri (Morocco cousin of the Mading ngoni) but i'm also inspired by the bass of Hilaire Penda (Cameroon) who is one of my best friends and who has been recording many bass lines for Kasse Mady and Kante Manfila, Thione Seck. When i play with Ballaké i'm also influenced by Roza Eskenazy, Dimitri Semsis and Mick Ronson!

DG: That's deep well of inspiration to draw on for sure. What have been some of the highlights playing with Ballaké and traveling to Africa -- what other countries in Africa have you been to?

VS: Playing in the court yard of Ballaké'place in Bamako at night when it's quiet and cool is divine! I also will remember all my life playing in the wild bikutsi's places on the bass with Mama Ohandja (crazy Assiko too) and in the forrest in Gabon playing with the funeral harpe with Pape Nzengui and the party in Egypt (crazy night you can see on in videos with Salma great singer from Soudan (Sudan), it's party you don't imagine making in Paris at 3 in the morning in a private flat!). I have allways great feeling with Matongué in Kin or Adjamé in Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire).

DG: Thanks for sharing your history. Good luck with the new reocrding and your tour. Be sure to say hello to Ballaké, you know his brother Sherif Sissoko lives here now in America!

Malian koraist Ballake Sissoko with French cellist Vincent Segal

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