The iconic Ballaké Sissoko has teamed up with Sona Jobarteh, a Gambian artist who plays the kora, on “Djourou,” a cut from his eponymous new album to be released next April. It marks a moment of grace of infinite gentleness.
An eminently respected musician and ambassador of the kora for more than 40 years, Ballaké Sissoko has long been a champion of solitary kora meditations and the art of musical conversation. Whether with his counterpart Toumani Diabaté, in duo format with the pianist Ludovico Einaudi or alongside the cellist Vincent Segal, with whom he made two sumptuous albums (Chamber Music then Musiques de Nuit on No Format!), Ballaké Sissoko loves to share his art and this is the guiding principle of his next album, Djourou. Listening has always been one of his greatest qualities and he described the album as follows: “Djourou is the rope, the one that connects me to others.”
After releasing the first single from the album in which the Malian virtuoso formed a dialogue with the rapper Oxmo Puccino, the No Format! label is now unveiling a new track that shares the project’s name. For this, Ballaké unites with Sona Jobarteh, a Gambian musician and singer who has managed – and this is rare – to make a place for herself in the masculine and historically closed universe of kora players. Coming from a line of West African griots, distant relatives of the great Toumani Diabaté whose name she shares (Jobarteh = Diabaté), Sona is inspired by her grandfather who left Mali to settle in Gambia. She also shares many connections with Ballake’s ancestors, who, when they left Gambia for Mali, went in the other direction. Indeed, since the establishment of the Empire of Mali, which covered these two territories, the djeli (griots) have always ignored borders and kept their ties alive in a wonderful common heritage.
Sona Jobarteh is, in her own way, an exception: unlike many children of her generation who grew up in Europe, she chose to explore traditional music in depth rather than to merge it with more contemporary genres, such as hip-hop, jazz or rock. Growing up with her grandfather and father, who both played the kora, she was taught by her brother at the age of four. Also having mastered the cello and harp, which she studied at conservatory level, she decided to concentrate on the kora as a teenager: “I started working very hard at the age of 17 or 18, studying the old repertoire with my father, which he masters perfectly. That’s when I really started my career as a kora player. But, as I said, the instrument was in my hands long before I made the conscious decision to devote myself to it.” She adds: “There is something very special about that instrument and it has a huge power inside the sound of the strings and the way that it’s built and it does have an effect on people, definitely, in terms of energy, it has a very particular energy.”
Sona was both thrilled and intimidated to be in the studio with such a knowledgeable and admired “uncle”: “You grow up listening to somebody, and that’s the person that has in many ways been your teacher, your inspiration since a very young age. The first time I heard him, he sounded so different to me, the tone that he gets out of the instrument is so different. He says something to me, the phrasing and the melody he picks – and he’s technically amazing, but he doesn’t let that become more than the music. That’s something I’ve always respected about him.” Accustomed to working hard on her productions, she was challenged by Ballaké’s freedom – he is a musician who likes nothing more than capturing the magic and beauty of the present moment, to put it on record, as a beautiful testimony of the harmonious encounters he has with other artists.
The album Djourou is a perfect illustration of the relationship Ballaké has with his instrument: personal and intimate, while always remaining linked to others, bringing together pieces upon which the musician, alone dialogues with his kora, and others in which he makes it converse with artists from other horizons. The same accuracy is always present.