Catching Ba Cissoko’s band on stage is like watching African lightning bottled in front of you. The aching beauty of the acoustic kora, the thrill of an electrified kora and the cross currents of tradition and modernity in west African music meeting in one band. The whole — as dazzling as it is — feels unstable, powerful, beguiling.
With a tour, a new album and lots of interest being generated, we were lucky enough to grab a bit of his time just before his London gig. He has a fresh sound but to really get Ba Cissoko, you need to understand where he is coming from, “I started to play kora when I was 12 years old. In the beginning, I was not really interested in learning kora; soccer was my main concern. But one day my great uncle M’bady Kouyate (one of the most famous kora players in western Africa) came to my village Kundara (in the north of Guinea-Conakry) to visit our family and he asked my father what I was doing.
“The griots are the memory of Africa, they tell the stories to the people, to keep our history and heritage alive.”
“Soccer is not really what a griot is supposed to do and my father and my uncle told me that at least I should know how to play kora, so he decided to bring me with him in different countries, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, where he taught me how to play the kora and ever since then I have really enjoyed playing kora.
“In the Mandinka tradition, there are the griots and my family and I, we’re all griots from father to son, my great grandfather was a griot and kora player; this instrument has been in my family for centuries. The griots are the memory of Africa, they tell the stories to the people, to keep our history and heritage alive. They also have a very important social role in the community, they play for baptisms and weddings and often they are here to solve conflicts in the community.
“The kora is ‘the king’ or ‘the queen’ of the traditional African instruments, playing kora means following rules and codes given by our ancestors, we still play tunes that our ancestors used to play, we don’t have lots of libraries or written history in Africa — griots and koras (and other traditional African instruments: balafon, n’goni, djembe…) are here to keep our tradition alive and real.”
“Yes, I think our music is something we are building all our life with what we learned and listened to, playing like Jimi Hendrix and playing kora is something very natural for us.”
So far, so traditional, but what really sets Ba Cissoko’s band apart from the others is the thrilling interplay between him and the precociously talented Seckou on electric kora (well, kora played through ‘wah-wah’ to be precise). “Sekou and I, we learnt the kora together, I started first so I used to teach him, but Sekou started to play very young — around 5 years of age — and he is M’bady Kouyate’s son, so we have in a certain meaning the same spirit and are from the same family. We both play the same kora, not the traditional one with goat skin rings which is very difficult to tune but a kora with metal keys. Our way of playing kora is very complementary; the main difference is that Sekou added an effects pedal to his kora so he can play with a ‘wah-wah’ and can use distortion and other modern effects. So this brings to our music a new sound, something more modern that people call an urban sound.”
This collision in sound between old and new is what really animates the band, “For us, we grow up with western music and traditional African music, so our music taste just mixes both. On stage, we will play some tunes which are a little bit more traditional but still with a modern touch, and we will also play reggae, blues, jazz or even rock tunes. Yes, I think our music is something we are building all our life with what we learned and listened to, playing like Jimi Hendrix and playing kora is something very natural for us. We are here to spread the kora worldwide, and this modernity is essential for us and for our audience too.”
Jimi Hendrix is one thing but of course kids everywhere, Africa included, are more interested in hip hop, what are they going to make of Ba Cissoko’s sound? “It is true now that more and more young Africans listen to music like 50 Cent, Tupak and Bob Marley — it is the same for us, we are listening to that kind of music too. Our music is the reflection of our tradition and the music that you can hear on the radio, and in Africa. Traditional music is still very present. Young people are very enthusiastic about our music, they like our tunes with Tiken Jah Fakoly and the Somalian rap singer K’naan. If you check out African rap singers, they often use kora, djembe, balafon , n’goni… in their music.”
“Playing with Femi is playing with a friend. We really love him, we love his music, we met him at festivals and we had the chance to play with him on stage at the mythic Shrine club in Lagos.”
Echoing the message that Baaba Maal often delivers, he adds, “Africa is today a mix of modernity and tradition and I hope that we will be able to keep the tradition, this is the heart of each African, and I will always work with this goal in mind.”
With that in mind, perhaps it is no surprise that the album is stuffed with special guests from the worlds of African hip hop and reggae, “inviting people and jamming is also part of our tradition and I think also these guests were very relevant to our music. We have had very good feedback in Guinea with the tunes with Tiken, K’naan and the Nubians, and for the band it was a real pleasure working with those artists. This new album is a new experience for us, so with time we will see what worked the best.”
Ba Cissoko expresses how pleased he is to be on the next African Soul Rebels tour with Femi Kuti. He’s had a busy year so far and the concert coming up with Amadou and Mariam in London will be a repeat performance of a concert they played in Mali earlier in the year.
With so much going on, you had better catch the Ba Cissoko experience while you can.
Electric Griot Land is out now on Totolo
Gigs in London:
11 November – Roundhouse, Camden with Amadou and Mariam (Ba is on stage at 7:30pm)
12 November – Fopp, Tottenham Court Road with Straight No Chaser DJs
–Photo: Ba Cissoko (main) with Seckou (left)–
Ba Cissoko’s official site
Ba Cissoko on Flykr