Much like the surname “Smith” or “Jones” here in the U.S., the name “Cissoko” (also spelled “Sissoko”) is a common family name throughout the West African countries of Mali, Senegal, and Guinea. It’s probably a centuries-old dynastic name, similar to the name Keita (think Mamady, Salif, or Seydou), which can be traced back to Soundiata Keita, who founded the Malian empire in 1230 A.D.
Cissokos are well-known griots—musicians who serve as cultural historians—passing down stories and traditions using instruments like the kora, the 21-string harp-lute of West Africa. It’s no coincidence that many talented kora players are named Cissoko. There’s Ba Cissoko from Guinea, Senegalese Malang Cissoko and Ablaye Cissoko. Then there’s the Malian kora virtuoso Ballaké Sissoko, who was born into the griot caste. He received early musical training from his father, Djelimady Sissoko, who was himself a renowned griot. Ballaké began his career playing with L’Ensemble National of Mali, but rose to prominence through his work with the great Malian kora master, Toumani Diabate.
What sets Ballaké apart from other Cissokos is that he has proven, more than anyone else, that the sounds of the kora blend seamlessly with Western music. Made from a large gourd covered in goatskin and intricate beadwork, the West African instrument is a striking work of craftsmanship. Ballaké played and recorded with Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi on Diario Mali in 2003, and has since collaborated with French cellist Vincent Segal on two beautiful albums: Chamber Music (2011) and Musique de Nuit (2015).
Segal is a classically-trained cello virtuoso whose versatility keeps him in constant demand across a variety of different musical styles. He has worked with artists of every genre, including Elvis Costello, Cesaria Evora, Carlinhos Brown, Georges Moustaki, Blackalicious, and more. The surprising pairing of Sissoko’s kora and Ségal’s cello is a glorious and elegant hybrid sound.
The Sissoko-Segal duo begin their West Coast tour of North America on October 22 in Seattle before heading down south to perform here in Los Angeles on Wednesday, November 1, at the Temple Israel of Hollywood. This special co-presentation with Grand Performances is the duo’s first tour of the West Coast since 2011. Expect to hear songs from the superb Musique de Nuit album and probably some favorites from Chamber Music as well. I highly recommend this show.
For those of you West African music fans, tune into Morning Becomes Eclectic at 10 A.M. this Friday, October 20, when I will feature more tracks from Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal, along with other stunning kora sounds.
The prolific Ballaké Sissoko is also featured on The Routes of Slavery 1444–1888, a new album by Jordi Savall’s early music ensemble, Hesperion XXI. I just love this wonderful track.