This week I attended a very unusual show that showed once again how music transcends all boundaries: music as universal language. The two artists on stage at the Skirball Cultural Center—thanks to Yatrika Shah-Rais for programming this show–were Vincent Segal and Ballake Sissoko. They played two instruments that developed concurrently in West Africa and Europe centuries ago. The kora is the traditional 21 string harp-lute played throughout Guinea, Senegal, and Mali. It is a large instrument with a gourd resonator on the bottom, tons of strings, a round pole rising up out of it. It is covered in beautifully beaded goat skin. The sound is intricate and finely filigreed. In other words, a perfect complement for the classical cello.
I’ve seen other such cross-cultural collaborations before. Ablaye Cissokho from Senegal paired up with a great German jazz trumpet player named Volker Goetze, now based in New York City and leading a crack jazz orchestra there. It would seem like the kora, though relatively unknown outside of West African music aficionados, harmonizes effortlessly with just about any other instrument, African, European, you name it. Popular pianist composer Ludovico Einaudi also did a cd with Sissoko, Diario Mali (Malian Diary).
Ballake Sissoko is a complete virtuoso, but what I found most stunning was Vincent Segal’s playing. Not only is he a classical virtuoso, but he is adept in West African and North African modes and scales. At one point he played in a gnawa style, Moroccan mystical trance music normally played on traditional Moroccan instruments such as the guimbri and doussn’gouni.
It was an evening rich with history, mystery, and musical magic.
Here is a youtube video of their beautiful duets:
and a “tiny desk” concert from NPR: