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Most bands that visit NPR headquarters for our Tiny Desk Concerts need to adjust their setup and sound to accommodate the setting's limitations. At the very least, the musicians have to cram into a spot much smaller than most stages.
Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal are an exception. In fact, the duo's transfixing combination of African and European strings was a better fit in our office than it was at New York City's GlobalFEST the previous evening, when their delicate sounds had to compete with thumping bass beats on the venue's two other stages. When Segal asked me to set up the chairs really close to each other, I laughed and said, "That won't be a problem."
When the performance began, a hush came over the NPR crowd. Western ears don't hear the kora often enough, and its natural beauty — combined with Sissoko's mastery of the instrument — stunned those in attendance. But Segal wasn't content to play, well, second fiddle. Halfway through the duo's second song, "Balazando," Segal adjusted his fingering and the angle of his bow, and all of a sudden, his cello turned into an African flute. If we'd had a third camera facing the crowd, you would have seen jaws hit the floor. We didn't pick them up until Sissoko and Segal stopped playing 10 or 15 minutes later.
Filmed and edited by Michael Katzif; photo by Abby Verbosky