Musician accuses JFK officials of smashing his instrument

Musician accuses JFK officials of smashing his instrument


norman lebrecht

February 06, 2020

In an incident reminiscent of the one around Christmas 2013 where JFK officials smashed the flutes of Canadian virtuoso Boujemaa Razgui, a leading Malian musician has shouted out that Customs at the same airport destroyed his precious West African kora.

The Malian virtuoso Ballaké Sissoko has published this account of events:


(Lucy Durán, feb 4, 2020)
Today, 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 justification.
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 total integrity.
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 have 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 calibre 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 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.



  • Peter San Diego says:

    It seems as if US and Russian customs agents are vying with each other in a contest of idiocy. I wonder what condition the two Moscow Philharmonic violins will be in, when (if) they’re returned…

  • Ursus Bohemicus says:

    If it is any comfort I heard a story of the same airport trashing Krystian Zimerman’s Steinway.

  • Peter says:

    An act of stupid or perhaps nasty deliberate vandalism. But will the officials have known what the instrument was, or the skin colour of the owner ?
    Unless this was the case, then it seems like mindlessness rather than racism ?

  • V.Lind says:

    I heard of US Customs dismantling a Guarnerius del Gesu of, I believe, 1742. Belonged to a well-known violinist of my acquaintance.

    And before anyone swoops, this was at least two Presidents ago. 🙂

  • fflambeau says:

    Well, Trump is the President and this instrument comes from Africa. Enough said.

  • christopher storey says:

    Utterly disgraceful . It rather proves the truth of Clemenceau’s well known observation about the USA

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    ==Clemenceau’s well known observation about the USA

    Well, it’s worth repeating : “America is the only nation in history which, miraculously, has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration “

  • Dave T says:

    “Would they have dared do such a thing to a white musician playing a classical instrument?”
    Short answer: yes. Don’t take it personal Lucy and Ballaké, the US Customs Service is an equal-opportunity property destruction machine.

  • Dave T says:

    Update: TSA (not US Customs) is claiming that it did not destroy the instrument as it did not open the case at all because a scan of the case showed that it did not contain explosives.

    Amazingly, this story is also being reported by People magazine, sandwiched (probably) between articles about Shakira’s Superbowl outfit and keto diet friendly snacks.

    • Marg says:

      If they didnt open the case, how did their note get in there? My deepest sympathies to the owner – what a god awful thing to find upon opening the case of your musical instrument.

      • Mr. Knowitall says:

        What they say (and I don’t know one way or the other) is that those forms are easy to obtain. For example, I have had a few as a result of my own luggage and instruments being inspected. They also say that this fort had tape on it, which they say they don’t use.