Alagi Yorro Jallow
February 4, 2020, one of Africa’s most outstanding performers, the
exceptional kora player from Mali, Ballaké Sissoko has just had his cherished,
custom-made kora completely destroyed by USA Customs, without any
Ballaké is a highly acclaimed, distinguished performer who travels around the
world with his kora for concerts at top venues. His reputation is impeccable
as both artist and human being. He has no criminal record. He is just a brilliant
musician, a pacifist, a kind and gentle person, a magnificent and creative
performer who manages to give African tradition a contemporary voice with
The kora is a fragile, hand-crafted instrument, and Ballaké ’s kora is tailor-
made to his own specifications. It is an intrinsic part of his very special sound.
Would US customs have dared to dismantle a Stradivarius? In its own way
that is what has just happened to Ballaké. The neck of the kora has been
removed. The strings, bridge and entire, delicate and complex sound system
of amplification has been taken apart. The kora is in pieces. Even if all the
components that have been dissembled were intact, it takes weeks before a
kora of this caliber can return to its previous state of resonance. These kinds
of custom-made koras are simply impossible to replace. They are certainly
not available in shops.
Ballaké had just finished a two-week successful tour of the USA (LA,
Berkeley, Miami, Chicago and NY) with his group 3MA, an innovative and
unique trio that brings together string instruments from Mali, Morocco and
Madagascar. Ballaké boarded his Air France plane to Paris on his way home
from their final concert in New York. He checked in his kora, in its hard case,
with its state-of-the-art amplification system, specially designed by sound
engineer Julian Cooper.
It was a night flight arriving in Paris the next morning – today, Feb 4. At the
airport, Ballaké picked up his kora case, went back to his flat and slept. But
when he woke up and opened the kora case, he was shocked and dismayed
to find his kora in many pieces, with only a note from US customs – in Spanish,
with the unfortunate motto: “Intelligent security saves time”.
Not Ballaké’s time, for sure.
In Mali, the jihadists threaten to destroy musical instruments, cut the tongues
out of singers, and to silence Mali’s great musical heritage. And yet, ironically,
it is the USA Customs that have in their own way managed to do this. Would
they have dared do such a thing to a white musician playing a classical
instrument? What does this tell us about the attitude of the Trump
administration towards African musicians? This is an unprovoked and sad act
of aggression, a reflection of the kind of cultural ignorance and racism that is
taking over in so many parts of the world and that endangers the best of
musicians from Africa and elsewhere.