Kora concert recalls legacy of narrative music, inspires social change

Last Sunday, visiting artist Ballake Sissoko graced the stage of the Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall in the Ernest Brown World Music Series. Sissoko is a world-renowned Mali kora player. The kora is a West African harp lute with 21 strings, which was traditionally used by storytellers of the Mande culture as musical accompaniment for stories. His concert at the College was the first concert to take place in the U.S. as part of Sissoko’s international tour, which includes stops in Australia and Europe.

The kora is an unusual and remarkably beautiful instrument. When Sissoko first appeared on stage all eyes were drawn to this mysterious object. The kora most closely resembles the design of a harp, which the audience learned later through Sissoko’s translator is actually based on the design of the kora. The instrument is composed of several parts, including a large gourd resonator covered by animal hide and pole neck. Two smaller poles are attached to the base as handles and the 21 strings are attached from the bottom of the guard to attach to the thong tuning rings on the neck.

Watching Sissoko play the kora for the first time was an emotional experience. The instrument stayed situated on a stand between the legs of a seated Sissoko so that it was almost as though he were hugging the kora as he played. When Sissoko began to play, his eyes closed and his hands began to move quickly up and down the neck of the kora. The depth and diversity of the sound that the kora produces is unparalleled in modern music. The first song sounded as if it were being played by a variety of instruments, giving the sound a shocking richness.

What made Sissoko such a charismatic and engaging performer was the overwhelming amount of emotion with which he played. From that first moment when his eyes closed, he did not open them again during a song. His body remained still, and all that moved were his hands. The passion and intensity with which he played was evident in the emotions that danced across his face.

It was fascinating as a first time viewer to watch Sissoko manipulate the kora. He engaged with the whole instrument, his fingers moving so nimbly and with such subtly across the whole length of the neck and down the body of the gourd that it was easy to get lost just watching. At times Sissoko beat the gourd like a drum for emphasis or let out an exclamation to punctuate a note, keeping the audience on its feet.

Throughout the concert, the audience was constantly reminded of the kora’s storytelling origins. The music had a definitive narrative quality, ebbing and flowing into a beginning, middle and end with enough variation that many times it mirrored human speech. Part of the reason for Sissoko’s popularity is his ability to unite local African melodies with modern western traditions drawing from a range of genres including rock ‘n’ roll and blues.

Sissoko’s translator and fellow kora player described Sissoko as having the ability to play with anyone in any context. The versatility of the kora’s sound and Sissoko’s clear talent made this seem like a very real possibility.

Many of the songs Sissoko played were from his new album just released this year titled At Peace. Sissoko explained to the audience through his translator that the title and subject matter of the album references the current political and social climate in Mali, which is incredibly turbulent. Sissoko expressed his hope that through his music the audience and the world at large would come to “understand one another through his instrument.”