In covering the Savannah Music Festival, I’ve written many times about my passion for African music, specifically the music of Mali. It’s a passion owed directly to the Music Festival, which has brought in so many amazing Malian musicians over the past few years.
This year it’s the turn of Malian master Ballake Sissoko, in a scintillating partnership with the versatile French cellist Vincent Segal at the Charles H. Morris Center.
Sissoko plays a West African instrument called a kora, which is often mistakenly compared to a banjo based purely on its silhouette. The kora is musically much closer to a harp or lyre, in that its 21 strings are never fretted, but always represent a single note per string.
Unlike a harp, however, the kora is played by the thumbs, which enables a particular percussive, robust quality, as opposed to the harp’s signature glissando.
Sissoko, simply put, is a genius. Equally skilled at melody and rhythm, he performs mini-symphonies on his handmade, beautiful instrument. In partnership with Segal, however, we are in the presence of magic.
Segal tells the audience that it’s commonplace to refer to African instruments as “traditional,” while cellos and violins and the like are usually called “classical.” But he reminds us that Sissoko’s kora is every bit as classical as a cello, with a similar pedigree going back centuries, every bit as daunting to craft, and every bit as challenging to master as the Western instrument.
Segal’s open mind isn’t limited to musicology, however; in concert with Sissoko he becomes a veritable Hendrix of the cello, from extended, muscular pizzicato stylings to an intriguing, otherworldly technique of bowing near the bridge while simultaneously using harmonics.
At one point, Segal got up from his cello and walked around with African hand percussion as Sissoko, eyes closed, enraptured both himself and his audience in a near-trancelike state.
Again, at the risk of repeating myself far too many times: Deepest thanks to the Savannah Music Festival for continuing to bring these stunningly talented African musicians to town for our musical and spiritual enjoyment.