Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal won the Fusion award in this year’s Songlines Music Awards. The first enchanting meeting of kora and cello on the album Chamber Music was replicated with renewed intimacy on the duo’s 2015 album, Musique de Nuit. Nigel Williamson speaks to the duo.
“It’s like a modern-day field recording,” says Vincent Segal. “We played on the roof of Ballaké’s house in Bamako under the stars. We started at midnight and played until we were dead, around 4am, without thinking and very relaxed, totally in the music. We recorded three nights and we could hear the murmur of the city drifting up. I love records where you can feel something is happening around the music like that. Everybody plays differently in the studio and it’s a bit claustrophobic. We by-passed that.”
Ballaké Sissoko agrees. “It’s true. The ambience of playing like that is very special. In the studio you have cues and production and we didn’t have any of that.”
They are talking about Musique de Nuit, the second exquisite album (reviewed in #111) of duets by Sissoko, the 48-year-old Malian kora maestro and Segal, the classically-trained French cellist-turned-world music adventurer.
The intimate, intuitive interplay between the two men was first heard on 2009’s Chamber Music, a genre-defying hybrid recorded at Salif Keita’s Studio Moffou in Bamako that drew richly on the twin heritages of West African oral tradition and European conservatoire classicism, spiced by the innate musical curiosity and openness of two musicians who seemed to respond almost telepathically to each other.
Since then they have toured the world together, playing 200 concerts as a duo and refining and developing their collaboration both on stage and in countless hours spent jamming, experimenting and improvising off it.
“We wanted to go further with the second record because of our experience playing together and practising in dressing rooms and hotel rooms,” Sissoko says. “The magic of the first album lay in the meeting itself and our coming together. We didn’t know how it was going to go. This record has come out of our shared experience since then, although it’s also very improvisational and natural.”
We are talking in the small studio-come-study on the ground floor of Segal’s elegant home in Paris’ Marais district, a short distance from Place des Vosges, the city’s oldest and most graceful square. He lives on a quiet back street but one with a famous musical past; a few doors down is the apartment where Jim Morrison died in his bath tub from a heroin overdose in 1971, a site still much visited by Doors fans. When I mention this morbid history, Segal nods knowingly and then raises the tone by pointing out that composer and conductor Pierre Boulez was also a one-time resident.
If Segal’s small studio doesn’t quite have the ambience of Sissoko’s roof terrace in Bamako, it has still played a significant part in their musical partnership. “We have played together a lot here when Ballaké is in France,” Segal explains. “When you are coming from Mali, most flights go via Paris so he is always passing through when he is touring.”
When Sissoko arrives, I don’t recognise him at first; gone are the African robes he wears on stage and he’s dressed in contemporary Paris street wear, dark jeans and a neatly tailored cream jacket. He chats affably in French, with Segal translating into English for him, although his colleague also amplifies and elaborates so that a couple of sentences from Sissoko sometimes produces a five minute ‘translation’ so that by the end it isn’t quite clear who has said what.
Not that it matters, for to spend any time with them is to be struck by the seeming ability to read each other’s minds that has sprung from their musical collaboration.
“We seem to understand each other without talking. It’s about respect,” Sissoko says. “We were born in the same month and the same year, April 1967,” Segal adds. “We’ve both got sons and daughters around the same age and we’ve seen each other’s children growing up and we had the same kind of early life and training, practising our instruments. We are very similar. We can stay in the same room together for days without doing anything except playing.”
As if to emphasise the closeness of the extended family the two men have formed, halfway through our conversation, Sissoko’s son Mohamed arrives. He hasn’t followed in his father’s footsteps to become a musician but plays football for France’s leading club, Paris St Germain, and his feet are said to move as fast as his father’s fingers on the strings of the kora.
“I don’t want to force him to play the kora because I was never forced. My father never showed me how or what to play,” Sissoko says. Given that his father was the great Djelimady Sissoko, whose 1970 LP Cordes Anciennes with Sidiki Diabaté, the father of Toumani, was the first ever kora duets album, I express some surprise at this. Segal takes up the story: “He watched and listened, as you do. But he is totally self-taught. He never had lessons. I meet Western musicians sometimes who say they want to go to Mali and learn to play the kora from a maestro. But that’s not how it works. Ballaké plays very differently from his father. There is transmission but it’s not by tuition.”
He goes on to explain that Ballaké was only 13 when his father died, by which time he had only been playing the kora for two years. As the oldest son he then had to leave school and joined the Malian national orchestra to become the family’s breadwinner, a story Segal illustrates by flicking open his laptop and showing us archive footage of the 13-year-old backing Kassé Mady Diabaté. At the flickering sight of his youthful self, Sissoko shrugs a sheepish grin.
I had assumed that the initiative for their collaboration had come from Segal, an audacious musical knight errant who has abseiled fearlessly across the contours of classical, jazz, rock and world music and whose CV includes playing in symphony orchestras, a spell with the Lyon opera, the trip-hop electronica duo Bumcello and collaborations with Elvis Costello, Cesaria Evora, Sting, Mayra Andrade, Susheela Raman, Blackalicious and Carlinhos Brown among others. But he soon corrects me.
“It was Ballaké’s idea. He discovered the cello in Greece, playing with Ross Daly. Then he saw me playing with the American singer Chocolate Genius and he came to me and said perhaps we could play together. It wasn’t a concept. He just liked the sound of the cello.”
What was it Sissoko liked about the sound? “I think it was the combination of bow and pizzicato plucking and I thought we could construct a different kind of collaboration,” he says. “I was looking for something that could go beyond one recording or one record or one session, something that could progress and develop.”
Segal has his own collaborative models and talks enthusiastically about the piano and double bass duets recorded by Duke Ellington, one of his great musical heroes, and Jimmy Blanton. He also cites the groundbreaking 1967 West Meets East album of violin and sitar duets by Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar. “As a classically-trained musician, Menuhin really inspired me,” he says. “He was the first guy who had respect for music from all around the world and understood that there was deep music everywhere, not just in the Western classical tradition.”
His background in world music runs surprisingly deep. “I grew up listening to classical music but a lot of blues and jazz too, and with my cello I was always playing along to all different kinds of records, looking for different musical worlds,” he explains. “At 17 or 18 I was asking myself what to do with the rest of my life. Should I stay playing classical music in an orchestra? I felt I wanted to jump but I didn’t just want to be a jazz player either. I always loved jazz but I wanted more than that, too.”
A defining moment came during a year spent on a scholarship studying classical music in Banff, Canada. “While I was there I met a film director called Michael Snow and he persuaded me I could do whatever I wanted. When I came back to Paris I was living next door to a restaurant in Pigalle called Tam Tam Sagaie and in front of the restaurant the late promoter Mamadou Konté used to hold the Africa Fête. So I heard African music there – Youssou, Kassé Mady, Mory Kanté, Ousmane Kouyaté, Salif Keita… all of them.”
He began playing sabar and cello duets with an African drummer and became Papa Wemba’s stand-in bass guitarist. “He used to call me when his musicians couldn’t get a visa and ask me to play at one or two days notice. I wasn’t much of a bass player but it was a good school. Then I met Ballaké…”
The gentle atmospherics and relaxed mood of Musique de Nuit suggest an informal but high-class jam session but, I suggest, it must take a lot of arranging to sound so effortless. Not so, Segal says. “There’s a lot of love goes into what we are doing and the music comes from a lot of practising together. But there aren’t any arrangements. One of us starts and the other builds on the melody and then we go. That’s how we play. There’s no pre-planned structure. Some of the pieces on the new record we had been playing in dressing rooms and so on for years, but some of it is new stuff that emerged during the recording.”
Sissoko, he says, is unusual among West African musicians in his ability to be spontaneous. “Malian music is oral music but surprisingly many Malian musicians are terrified of improvising. They always play the same stuff, whether they are jelis or not. You have to learn not to be afraid and, for me, Ballaké is the king of improvisation.”
The pair have just returned from playing at a Berlioz festival in Vienne, France. “We went on straight after the Te Deum and I put some lines of Berlioz in what we were playing and Ballaké started improvising. Everybody wondered how he knew Berlioz so well, but he didn’t actually know it all. He’d only heard his music for the first time the day before.”
If there is more of Segal than Sissoko in our interview, it is not simply that the cellist has more to say but a conscious decision to get his side of the story, for an in-depth interview with Sissoko appeared in #91 on the release of his solo album, At Peace. Given that Segal produced and played on that album, I wonder how they differentiate between solo recordings and fully collaborative projects. “That record came from my head and I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Sissoko says. “He was totally organised and he was in charge,” Segal adds. “It was more produced than what we do together. When we are a duo, there is no boss. It’s a conversation based on playing together without separation like classical music and without overdubs and headphones and lots of production.”
He describes the sound of the new album as “raw and husky” and admits that some of the strings are slightly out of tune on the second track ‘Passa Quatro’. “But I defend that and I love to leave in the mistakes,” he says. “I was talking about this with the flute player Magic Malik and he says mistakes in music are a gift. Now we have auto-tune, but that’s not what it is about. It’s about playing together in the moment.”
He begins to tell a story about Sissoko breaking a fingernail during the recording and the measures that were necessary to fix it. “Two big guys going into a beauty salon for women in Bamako and asking them to do Ballaké’s nails. You can imagine how everybody was looking at us.” By now Sissoko is cracking up with laughter at the memory. “On some of this record you can hear that his nail is a bit rough. But that’s life…”