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'It's Like A Piece Of Yourself': Conn. Musician On The Destruction Of A Prized Instrument

Malian musician Ballake Sissoko
B. Peverelli
Malian musician Ballake Sissoko

Sherif Sissoko says it would have been one thing if his brother Ballaké’s car had been vandalized. But his musical instrument?

“He was traveling to India, to Israel, to China with this kora,” said Sissoko, who lives in Hartford and is also a musician. “It’s personal. It’s like a piece of yourself.”

Sherif Sissoko says he and his brother Ballaké grew up in Mali playing the kora, a traditional stringed harp. 

Ballaké Sissoko travels and performs worldwide. About two weeks ago, after a tour in the U.S., he flew out of New York City to his home in France. A day later, he opened the case to find his custom-made instrument destroyed. Alongside the disassembled instrument was a note that said “TSA Notice of Inspection.”

A kora is made of a huge gourd with a skin head, and it has a tall bridge and 21 strings. Banning Eyre, senior producer for the radio series Afropop Worldwide, said building one takes a long time, especially Sissoko’s, which was considered a kind of “Stradivarius” of koras. Eyre heard him perform on it in New York City with an ensemble called 3MA just two nights before it was found in pieces.

“I asked Ballaké, ‘What was the biggest challenge in playing with this group?’ And he said the biggest challenge was tuning. But he had this kora made by a very excellent builder. And he was so proud of this thing. And I looked at it, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s an amazing instrument.’”


Sherif and Ballaké Sissoko come from a family of griots -- revered West African musicians and storytellers. Eyre said that for centuries griots have played an important role in that society, and still do today.  

“They were people who remembered history, praised heroes, criticized leaders, and they were also master musicians. And the kora was one of their key instruments.” 

Sherif Sissoko said his brother is rushing now to have a new kora built in time for concerts he has booked at the end of February.

“He will look at every measurement, you know, look at every string. He’s very picky about the instrument,” Sherif Sissoko said.

Musicians often encounter difficulties flying with their instruments. Eyre said players from Africa also frequently struggle with visa problems, particularly with President Donald Trump’s travel bans. 

“This most recent addition, Nigeria and Tanzania to the list, is a real juggernaut. I was just looking at the lineup of possible African acts at South by Southwest next month in Austin and almost half the African groups are from Nigeria. And I’m thinking, ‘Are these guys even going to get here? What’s going to happen?’” 

Transportation Security Administration officials told Connecticut Public Radio that they did not open Ballaké Sissoko’s kora case, insisting it did not trigger an alarm when screened for possible explosives. They say anyone could have placed a TSA notice beside the destroyed instrument.

Copyright 2020 Connecticut Public Radio

Diane Orson is CT Public Radio's Deputy News Director and Southern Connecticut Bureau Chief. For years, hers was the first voice many Connecticut residents heard each day as the local host of Morning Edition. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. She is the co-recipient of a Peabody Award. Her work has been recognized by the Connecticut Society for Professional Journalists and the Associated Press, including the Ellen Abrams Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism and the Walt Dibble Award for Overall Excellence.
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