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Ballake Sissoko - JPop.com
Artist info
Ballake Sissoko

Ballake Sissoko

Ballake Sissoko


In Mali, people say that the sound of the Kora "carries one's thoughts far away". This feeling lies at the heart of jeliya, the music of the jeli (griots). The griots are a hereditary group of artisan specialists who represent a tradition reaching back to the empire of Mali in the 13th century. Jeliya is also associated with the art of bards: singing the praises and telling the history of aristocratic families. It is the product of a creative exchange Read more on Last.fm
In Mali, people say that the sound of the Kora "carries one's thoughts far away". This feeling lies at the heart of jeliya, the music of the jeli (griots). The griots are a hereditary group of artisan specialists who represent a tradition reaching back to the empire of Mali in the 13th century. Jeliya is also associated with the art of bards: singing the praises and telling the history of aristocratic families.

It is the product of a creative exchange among the many cultural groups present in the Mande world (the vast area covered by the former population of the empire of Mali and its diaspora). Influenced by the lute traditions of the Sahel, Malian griot music developed a characteristic slow, spacious and majestic style. It can be distinguished from the Guinean and Gambian traditions which have a faster quality and draw from the music of the bala (xylophone) and the Kora, respectively. Despite the variety of regional styles, they all are united by a common musical aesthetics. They are structured around pieces of music that are considered models which are continually elaborated in performance. A steady, cyclical accompaniment is combined with cascading solo lines typical of the Muslim western Sahel and savannah.

In a manner comparable to many other African musical traditions, a crucial element is the setting up of two or more interdependent melodic parts that interact to create a polyrhythmic texture. The Kora belongs to the family of West African bridge harps with calabash resonators that are found in the savannah belt which extends from the Atlantic ocean to Mali and Burkina Faso. Many of these instruments are hunter's harps (donso ngoni, kori, kon, sinbi) and probably have their common origin in the simple principle of slipping a calabash drum onto a warriors or hunters bow. The neck has been straightened on the Kora of the griot to provide support for the added strings. The 21 strings of the Kora pass in two parallel planes over the sides of a wooden bridge.

The nylon strings are made from fishing lines although earlier they were made of finely twisted hide. The bridge sits on a square platform wrapped in cloth. It rests on a sound table which is made of calf hide stretched over the resonator. The strings are attached to leather tuning rings mounted on a wooden neck that passes through the calabash.

They are anchored onto an iron ring spiked through the protruding base of the neck. Three wooden sticks are placed over the rim of the calabash to ease the pressure of the bridge on the sound table and two of them serve as handles. The tonal range of the Kora covers two and a half octaves. Malian players typically use two kinds of heptatonic tuning systems (silaba and sauta), although some Gambian compositions call for other tuning varieties (hardino and tomora mesengo). The instrument is played with both thumbs and index fingers, so that the musician can play several motives simultaneously. Until the 20th century, the Kora was only used in The Gambia, Guinea Bissao and Southern Senegal, where oral traditions trace its use back to the Mandinka of the Kabu empire.

They describe how Jeli Madi Wulen, an ancestor of the Sissoko griots, discovered the Kora in the hands of a beautiful spirit woman. Jeli Madi Wulen composed Kelefa, the first song played on the Kora, in honour of the warrior Kelefa Sane. In its modern form, the instrument presumably dates back to the late 17th or 18th century. After World War II it was popularised in Mali by Sidiki Diabate and Jeli Madi Sissoko, two young master musicians from The Gambia. Belonging to a group of pioneering artists that saw jeliya as an important means to revive a great political and cultural heritage, they played for the leaders of the new political parties.

After independence in 1960, they participated in the creation of the Ensemble Instrumental du Mali, a state subsidised acoustic ensemble featuring a powerful chorus of jelimuso (griottes, female griot vocalists) and classical griot instruments, such as the nkoni (lute), the bala, the Kora, the jelidundun (bass drum) and the tamani (talking drum). Evoking the atmosphere of the medieval royal courts described by Arab travellers, the ensemble has provided the basis for the career of many outstanding griot musicians. In contrast to the dance rhythms of the Gambian Kora, Diabate and Sissoko built their music around the "cool" pace of the Malian tradition using it as a basis for developing rich melodic ornamentation. In 1971, their unique music was recorded on "Cordes Anciennes", the first instrumental Kora album.

It was a groundbreaking achievement given that in jeliya instruments are usually conceived as an accompaniment for singers and orators. In the 1980s, Malian Kora music was once more revolutionised when Jeli Moussa Sissoko and Toumani Diabate, the sons of Jeli Madi Sissoko and Sidiki Diabate, introduced chord progressions played on the guitar into their father's repertoire. In Guinea, the guitar has been assimilated by griots since the 1940s, and jeliya was blended with Afro-Cuban music. In landlocked Mali this phenomenon only began after independence when griotte vocalists, such as Fanta Sacko, broke with tradition by using guitars as an accompaniment. Vocalists and band leaders are often men in Guinea and Gambia, while in Mali female singers like Ami Koita, Tata Bambo Kouyate and Kandia Kouyate have become the big stars of pop music. Dressed in wide gold embroidered damast gowns, high heeled shoes and wearing gold jewelery given to them in exchange for their praise singing, these women not only fill concert halls, but perform at marriages and parties in the streets of Bamako or at immigrant residences in Paris.

The music played for these occasions is called sumun or "conversation". It features the traditional griot instruments as well as electric guitars, bass guitars and drum computers. Aimed at a young audience the mood of the music has on the one hand become lighter and more relaxed for the love songs and on the other hand, more rhythmic to allow for dancing. Growing up in this new musical climate, Toumani Diabate recorded Kaira, the first solo album in the history of the Kora and he fusioned his music with Flamenco and Jazz. Jeli Moussa Sissoko, the artist featured on this recording (Ballake), chose a style that has remained closer to the traditional genre. At the age of 14, he replaced his father in the Ensemble Instrumental National and by the late eighties he was also playing in the electric bands of the most famous jelimuso.

He remembers the difficulty of initially playing with virtuoso guitar players like Bouba Sacko and Jeli Madi Tounkara, who had picked up the techniques of the ngoni but also used western scales and rock riffs. Rising to the challenge, he was the first local Kora player to master western modes and still provide the rhythmic structure to accompany the dance steps of the singers. Simultaneously following different melodic lines with his thumbs and index fingers, Jeli Moussa's playing combines a bass accompaniment, the harmonic progressions of the rhythm guitar and intricate solo improvisations. Jeli Moussa works regularly with Kandia Kouyate, and together they toured the USA, Europe and Australia.

He has become the most sought after Kora player in the Malian griottes' circuit. Jeli Moussa still prefers to play in an acoustic setting late at night when the noise from the streets and compound life has died down and only the voices of the crickets can be heard. Here the delicate sound of the harp and the beauty of his musical creativity are fully revealed. This recording was made in the Sissoko compound in between rounds of tea and it captures this atmosphere.

It illustrates the artist's continuous research into the different regional traditions of the Mande world. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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