The international reputation of Malian-born maestro Ballake Sissoko has soared over the last two decades with his celebrity status, only enhanced by recent news that US Customs had smashed his treasured custom-built kora. The story melted many hearts and sent many more scurrying to Google to find out what, exactly, a kora was. (It’s a large wooden instrument with a brace of nylon strings which sounds like a cross between a Spanish guitar and a harp).
A popular online crowd-funder raised enough for a replacement and Sissoko’s blistering performance on the International Festival stage, justified every penny. Tonight’s partner, French cellist Vincent Segal, is also an astounding classical virtuoso with such command of his instrument he can make the cello sound like a violin, or guitar, or a modern slap bass, or a banjo, or a flute, or even pipes. He can do all this in the space of one tune.
The duo obviously have a comfortable history, exuding warmth and delight in each other’s company, while working almost instinctively on some tangled complex arrangements without the aid of music scores.
Their diverse repertoire displays a deep awareness of genres. A haunting African folk tune with mournful melodies can collapse into complex time signatures only to morph into something resembling modern jazz. At times it’s hard to believe there’s only two instruments on stage. Much of this trick comes down to how each performer criss-crosses roles between lead, rhythm and percussive backing as the song progresses. Sometimes the cello will take flight while the kora layers-in the backing, then an instant swap allows Sissoko his time in the sun to display some astonishing finger-picking. Both have such mastery of their instruments their intricate performance feels as natural as breathing.
With grateful thanks to Malcolm McGonigle for this review.