Posts Tagged ‘ballake sissoko’

Playlist: Quintessential kora

Posted on July 19th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .


The rippling strings of the kora define the sound of West Africa. But the instrument is also hugely versatile as this playlist shows, whether played solo by the virtuosic Toumani Diabaté, duetting with the Welsh harp of Catrin Finch, the cello of Vincent Ségal or the trombone of Roswell Rudd, underpinning the Afro-pop fusions of Ba Cissoko and Toumani’s son Sidiki Diabaté, or creating exotic textures for western rock stars such as Björk. (Playlist by Nigel Williamson for Songlines. Photo of Ballaké Sissoko by Benoit Peverelli.)

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Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal: conversations in the night

Posted on May 14th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .


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.

Click here to discover all the winners in this year’s Songlines Music Awards

“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…”

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Songlines Music Awards 2016: The Winners

Posted on May 4th, 2016 in Features, News, Recent posts by .

Songlines Music Awards 2016


We’re delighted to announce the winners of the eighth Songlines Music Awards which aim to put a much-deserved spotlight on some incredibly talented artists from around the world.

This year we’ve shaken up our awards, so as well as our usual Best Artist and Best Group awards – as voted by Songlines readers – we have five new geographical awards based on our reviews sections, as well as the World Pioneer and Newcomer Awards chosen by our editorial team.

Join us on October 3 at the Barbican in London for this year’s Songlines Music Awards Winners’ Concert, featuring performances by Mariza, Debashish Bhattacharya and others still to be announced. Tickets go on general sale at 10am on Friday (For more details visit or call 020 7638 8891

Hear editor-in-chief Simon Broughton introducing and playing music from all of this year’s winners, on the Songlines podcast, available as a free download on iTunes.

 Words by Nigel Williamson

Best Artist
(Mundo on Parlophone)

Songlines Music Awards Mariza

Back after a five-year recording hiatus, Mariza returned in 2015 with an album that was not so much a reinvention as a bold expansion of her role as fado’s foremost global ambassador. Adding sparkling pop ballads and subtle washes of electronica to her traditional roots, Mundo was an unalloyed triumph, her artistry hitting dynamic new heights and her voice expressing every emotional nuance, whether singing a gentle and intimate lullaby for her young son or melodramatically letting rip on the high notes with the force of an operatic diva.

Sympathetically helmed by the Spanish world music producer Javier Limón – whose previous credits include Buika and Anoushka Shankar – it’s an album that she describes as “the most personal I’ve ever made” and an invitation into her most private world. “I didn’t want any effects on my voice,” she told Songlines. “I wanted people to feel I was singing just next to their ear, like I’m right beside them, each listener as my solo audience.” Now in her early 40s, she emerges not only as the finest fado singer of her generation, but one of the world’s most charismatic artists, bridging traditional and popular forms in transcendental style.


Best Group
Africa Express (Terry Rileyʼs In C Mali on Transgressive Records)

Songlines Music Awards Terry Riley Africa Express

The notion of unleashing a group of West African musicians playing traditional instruments on the music of the American composer Terry Riley was an audacious piece of lateral thinking and arguably the most satisfying project yet to emerge under the banner of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express. Dispensing with the conceptual score and allowing the Malian musicians to interpret German conductor André de Ridder’s violin notations as they saw fit, the results were revelatory as centuries of African trance ritual add a warm looseness to Riley’s minimalist 60s composition. Albarn, Brian Eno and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs represent the Western contingent but it’s the African cohort on kalimba, balafon, kamelengoni and kora who provide the magic and fill the work with light and space as flutes, strings and chiming guitars join the African percussion as the ensemble reach the most thrilling of climaxes.

Although it sounds like no other version of Riley’s work, it remains true to its spirit as shifting polyrhythms and tonal and timbral changes create a sense of constant evolution, even though the same base note repeats insistently throughout the performance. Riley himself was delighted with the result, enthusing that it sounded as if his composition was “taking flight with the soul of Africa.”


Songhoy Blues (Music in Exile on Transgressive Records)

Songlines Music Awards Songhoy Blues

We have the armed jihadists who banned music when they took control of northern Mali in 2012 to thank for the existence of Songhoy Blues. Guitarist Garba Touré – whose father was a percussionist in Ali Farka Touré’s band – realised it wasn’t going to be a safe or pleasant thing to hang around Timbuktu, and like thousands of other refugees, he grabbed a bag and his guitar and boarded the first bus to Bamako. There he formed Songhoy Blues with fellow exiles Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré, subsequently joined by drummer Nathanael Dembélé.

Their first recording with American guitarist-producer Nick Zinner was trailed on the Africa Express compilation Maison des Jeunes, to which they contributed the standout track. Music in Exile, their full-length debut – again produced by Zinner, with assistance from their French manager Marc-Antoine Moreau, fully lives up to their promise as the new, rocking sound of Mali, dramatically propelling traditional African desert blues into a 21st-century urban setting. It earned them the front cover of Songlines, but the dynamic rock’n’roll heft of the recording also crossed over to receive rave reviews in rock mags such as NME, Uncut and Mojo.


Africa & Middle East
Seckou Keita (22 Strings on ARC Music)

Songlines Music Awards Seckou Keita

Having won the Cross-Cultural Collaboration award in the 2014 Songlines Music Awards for his album with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, the Senegalese-born but UK-based kora player Seckou Keita picks up another richly deserved award for 22 Strings, a mostly instrumental set of exquisite solo kora playing, full of meditative grace, sublime poise and consummate elegance and which combines traditional tunes with his own compositions. Born into a griot family in Casamance in southern Senegal in 1978 but now living in England, he started playing the kora when he was seven and after backing various other acts including Baka Beyond, he released his debut solo album in 2000.

After his current solo kora album, his next project will find him returning to the collaborative path on an album of duets with the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. “Everything in music has to be honest, and the deeper meanings of the songs and melodies must be preserved,” he says. “This is why it’s important that collaborations should be right for the music. There are connections between, say, Cuban and Indian and Welsh sounds and the repertoire of the kora. They can be explored without losing the distinct flavours of the different traditions and styles.”


Lila Downs (Balas y Chocolate on Sony Music)

Songlines Music Awards Lila Downs

Born in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, the daughter of a Mixtec Indian mother and an American university professor, Lila Downs grew up with a multicultural vision drawn from both sides of the Rio Grande. Her nine studio albums over the course of a 22-year career have defied categorisation, weaving traditional Mexican and native Mesoamerican music with blues, jazz, cumbia, rock and finding her singing in Spanish, English and various native tongues.

Inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, her current release Balas y Chocolate is a sizzling, gutsy, joy-giving dance album, as martial beats, rousing choruses, mariachi moods and agit-pop raps lend a festive brio. Her expressive, multi-octave voice arcs impressively from airborne falsetto to sultry contralto as she sings about subjects ranging the erosion of civil rights to political corruption, while the title-track is dedicated to migrant children. “I’m an artist and not a politician,” she says. “But music offers us the ability at desperate moments to feel the emotion that we haven’t been able to express.” Superlative sax, accordion and brass accompaniment provides a robust soundbed with stirring cameos from guest vocalists Colombian superstar Juanes and Mexican crooner Juan Gabriel as additional bonuses. Lila Downs features on the cover of the new issue (June, #118).


Asia & South Pacific
Debashish Bhattacharya (Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn on Riverboat Records)

Songlines Music Awards Debashish

The pioneering Indian slide guitarist has been playing for more than half a century; his father gave him a Hawaiian lap steel guitar at the age of three. By the age of 15 he had designed his own Hindustani version of the slide guitar, which he called the chaturangui. He’s since created the 14-string gandharvi and the anand, a four-string lap steel ukulele, to forge what he calls “the Trinity of Guitars” and with which he has created a new instrumental language for traditional Indian music.

His 2009 album Calcutta Chronicles earned a Grammy nomination and he’s recorded collaborative discs with the late Bob Brozman and with John McLaughlin. On Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn he traces a musical journey from dawn to dusk. As emotionally compelling as it is technically impressive, his creative virtuosity makes it easy to forget that he’s playing a guitar rather than a more traditional Indian stringed instrument. “The music I play is universal, rooted deep in thousands of years of tradition,” he says. “It has the essence of peace, harmony and bliss. But it’s essentially modern, engulfing the mood of reggae, hip-hop, rock, jazz and blues. That’s what my music is all about.”


Sam Lee (The Fade in Time on Nest Collective Records)

Songlines Music Awards Sam Lee

Born in North London to Jewish parents, after studying at Chelsea art college and working as a burlesque dancer, Lee discovered the arcane but resonant heritage of the UK and Ireland’s Gypsy culture and then ‘went native,’ spending several years collecting and learning songs and ballads from Traveller and Gypsy communities all over the UK and Ireland. He also picked up the lilting vocal style of Gypsy song and the fruits of his research were heard on his 2012 debut album Ground of its Own, which was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize.

On The Fade in Time he gives the stories and melodies he collected an ambitious and imaginatively modern platform, backed by a band that comprises violin, cello, piano, percussion and Japanese koto (zither), and adding everything from Bollywood beats and Polynesian textures to the reek and smoke of our own island’s living traditions. “There’s a difference between songs the Gypsies sang and songs you learned at Cecil Sharp House,” he says. “I decided I’d throw flames on what tradition is left out there. I’m a tree-climber and this music is for me like being up in the branches, knowing you are connected by its roots, deep into the earth.”


Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal (Musique de Nuit on No Format!)

Songlines Music Awards Ballake Sissoko Vincent Segal

Malian kora maestro Sissoko and the French cellist Segal were first heard playing together on 2009’s exquisite Chamber Music. Their second album of stringed magic, Musique de Nuit, sparkles with an even greater lustre, drawing organically 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 appear to respond almost telepathically to each other. That’s hardly surprising as between the two discs they toured the world, playing more than 200 concerts as a duo and refining and developing their collaboration in countless hours spent jamming, experimenting and improvising. “We wanted to go further with the second record,” Sissoko told Songlines. “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.” Mostly recorded under the stars on Sissoko’s rooftop in Bamako, the setting lends an exotic ambience to an album of subtle arrangements and inventive improvisational interplay that feels as fresh as it is timeless.


World Pioneer Award
Chris Blackwell

Songlines Music Awards Chris Blackwell

Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 for having discovered and signed Jethro Tull, Free, Roxy Music, Grace Jones and U2 among numerous other rock legends. But his citation also described him as ‘the person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music’ and it is for his incalculable contribution to promoting Jamaican and African artists for which he is honoured here. He launched Island Records in Jamaica in 1958 and was soon exporting early ska recordings to the UK, topping the charts in 1964 with Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’, arguably the first ‘world music’ crossover hit.

His signing of Bob Marley & The Wailers in 1973 was a seminal moment and he then went on to introduce Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé to an international audience. After selling Island he established the Mango and Palm Pictures imprints with a stellar roster that included Salif Keita, Baaba Maal and Angélique Kidjo. Blackwell’s 80th birthday next year is certain to prompt a host of industry tributes that will inevitably concentrate on his rock’n’roll triumphs –hence our decision to recognise separately his immense contribution to world music by making him the inaugural recipient of the Songlines World Pioneer Award.


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Songlines Best Albums of 2015

Posted on November 13th, 2015 in Recent posts by .


Songlines’ editors Jo Frost and Simon Broughton select their favourite albums from 2015

With five picks each, Jo Frost and Simon Broughton have chosen their favourite albums that have been reviewed within Songlines magazine in the last 12 months. You can read more about these ten albums in the next issue (Jan/Feb 2016, #114), out on December 11. This year’s selections (in alphabetical order):

Tarek Abdallah & Adel Shams
El-Din – Wasla
(Buda Musique, reviewed in #107)


Lila Downs – Balas y Chocolate
(Sony Music, reviewed in #112)


Tigran Hamasyan & the Yerevan State Chamber Choir – Luys i Luso
(ECM, reviewed in #113)


Seckou Keita – 22 Strings
(ARC Music, reviewed in #109)


Sam Lee & Friends – The Fade in Time
(Nest Collective Records, reviewed in #107)


Mariza – Mundo
(Warner Music Portugal, reviewed in #113)


Titi Robin with Mehdi Nassouli – Taziri
(World Village, reviewed in #109)


Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal – Musique de Nuit
(No Format!, reviewed in #111)


Mahsa Vahdat – Traces of an Old Vineyard
(Kirkelig Kulturverksted, reviewed in #107)


Various Artists – Africa Express Presents… Terry Riley’s In C Mali
(Transgressive Records, reviewed in #107)


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