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The history of the West African kora, a 21-string harp, goes back several hundred years — back to the days when Mande griots, hereditary musicians who tell the history of their people, played for the royal families of the old Mali Empire. I've always thought of this music as an African classical tradition, closely parallel to the European orchestras who also played for their wealthy patrons. This common heritage was confirmed for me when I experienced the unique duet of Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko and French cellist Vincent Segal. At the Cutting Room Studios in New York City, on the weekend of their American debut during globalFEST, the two performed songs from their first recording together, Chamber Music, as they too feel they share this musical link.
Before this session, Sissoko was well-known to me, thanks to his past association with another Malian kora great, Toumani Diabate. (Their beautiful album together, New Ancient Strings, reflects their own shared history: Their fathers made one of the first kora recordings back in the 1960s, titled Ancient Strings.) Ballaké Sissoko also played and toured in Taj Mahal's Mali collaboration, Kulanjan, and has recorded several of his own albums. Vincent Segal, however, was a new artist for me. Upon meeting him, I discovered an incredible background, from his extensive classical training to his varied collaborations with popular artists such as Sting, Marianne Faithful, Blackalicious and Chocolate Genius. Sissoko and Segal met at various festivals in France and started playing together purely for fun and for the challenge of bringing their instruments together. They developed a close relationship, as they found a common ground for their instruments — each drawing upon deep traditions, yet both arriving together at a new sonic space.
In the studio, as on the album, Sissoko and Segal create an original and intimate sound that comes from both African and European musical traditions. It was clear that they enjoyed each other's musical abilities and played beautifully off each other's strengths while, as they typically do live, they improvised on the spot. The musical result was pure pleasure, and it made for one of the most memorable sessions I've ever recorded.