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root salad Sissoko & Segal

The instrumental conversations between kora and cello are best heard in small rooms. Con Murphy listens.


he collaboration between Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal is, as the resultant album’s title Chamber

Music suggests, a serene affair in which the two musicians produce a series of beautiful instrumental conversations designed to be heard in as intimate an environment as possible. Spacious, warm and full of tender, crystalline melodies, it’s designed to be enjoyed close at hand, where the listener can almost feel the movement of air between these two fine musicians.

“What I usually like when playing live is the amplification, the way a large crowd reacts to the sound,” explains Segal, who has played with artists as varied as the P- Funk All Stars and Elvis Costello as well as forming half of trip-hop minimalists Bum- cello, “but we want to play in small rooms for 15 or so people, when the listener can feel the texture of the instruments.”

Ballaké agrees: “The kora was made for a small room or for performances out- side in a courtyard, so this is natural, the closeness of the performers and audience.”

That makes the audiences at recent gigs in London way over the duo’s pre- scribed optimum, but on the evidence of their hour-long performances of gentle persuasion and empathy, this music com- municates just as well to larger audiences. The fluid, diligently-rehearsed songs retain room for brief moments of improvisation, with Ballaké a picture of concentrated dexterity, smiling, humming along in parts whilst Vincent, a bit of a ringer for the ice- cool Swiss tennis ace Roger Federer, is a study in Gallic charm and humour. These are tunes of pinpoint precision, with the forensic attention to melodic detail result- ing in tunes of deceptive simplicity. “When it sounds simple that’s the more difficult stuff to do,” explains Ballaké. “It’s nice that people think they can do it, but when they try it they realise that internally it’s rhythmically more complex!”

The jumping-off point for the tunes is

the cello’s similarity to the West African bolon harp-lute, although its deeper reso- nance makes this anything but traditional Malian music. Instead, Sissoko harnesses West African melodies to Segal’s magpie- like approach to musical expression, invok- ing the Frenchman’s Algerian and Romani- an heritage and fascination for European classical and folkloric forms.

The test is whether the result manages to draw in new audiences to their respec- tive styles. “That’s always a challenge with this format,” explains Vincent, “and I did wonder how the album would be received, although Ballaké was more confident.”

“I like the way Africans always ask about the kora afterwards,” continues Bal- laké. “This always happens when you do something new. They have forgotten about these old instruments, and maybe come along to hear something more formal like a classical piece but afterwards they are ask- ing all about my instrument. Same for Malian kids who grew up in France and are into African hip-hop but afterwards have more pride in West African instruments.”

For the album’s recording, Ballaké gathered a handful of guests and hired Salif Keita’s Moffou studio in Bamako where they recorded with little recourse to overdubs and post-production.

The team faced problems with extra- neous noise and the distraction of various comings and goings in the small studio, and for all the album’s seemingly flawless nature, closer inspection reveals some reassuringly human moments where things go slightly astray. This happens most obviously, and charmingly, on the only vocal track, Regret – À Kader Barry (named for the late soku fiddle player) which is sung with affecting melancholy by Ivorian griotte Awa Sangho.

“It’s circular music so if you stop to overdub you are killing the energy,” explains Vincent, “you can’t go ‘stop stop, do that again and we’ll piece it together later’, you just roll on through to the end

each time and see which version sounds best, even if the track contains mistakes. As we were getting started on that song, we needed to check the levels so we asked Awa to sing something strong. She started, and then stopped, and I said ‘No, keep going’ and we went straight into it. So you can hear some errors, some good, some bad. But all belong to the best takes, so why not keep them?”

Another highlight, one with no obvi-

ous hiccups, is Histoire De Molly, with its nagging melodic interplay and broad sweep, written “about an Irish girl, and with movies in mind” according to Segal, “hence the Celtic sound, but perhaps it has as much in common with Breton music, which has a modal form that’s quite close to African modes“. And film scores is one path on which Vincent is headed next as well as “a bit of rock, jazz, then no doubt back to collaborating with Ballaké in the future”.

Sissoko’s ability to work with eclectic artists such as Segal and artists ranging from bluesman Taj Mahal to Madagascar’s Rajery and Driss El Maloumi of Morocco (in the wonderful 3MA trio) underlines his stature as one of the best and most versa- tile practitioners in his field. He has anoth- er solo album in the offing, a well-overdue follow-up to his excellent Tomora. Mean- time this duo is one gorgeous diversion well worth savouring.

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Photo: Philip Ryalls

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