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:
BALLAKE SISSOKO, MALIAN KORA PLAYER HAS HIS KORA
DESTROYED BY USA CUSTOMS
(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.