Ba Cissoko: The modern griot

26 Nov 2005

The sound on the other end of the line is similar to the flamenco notes you’d hear at the Lula Lounge if you happened to be there on a night when a good Spanish or South American band was playing.

“They’ve started rehearsing already,” Ba Cissoko says on the phone from Marseille where he’s now based.

They are Sekou Kouyaté, Ibrahimah Bah and Kourou Kouyaté the other members of his musical group; all from the West African country of Guinea.

Ba Cissoko is the eldest, the “grand-frère”, the creator of a unique new sound that has dazzled many in Africa and Europe for more than 15 years.

What makes their music unique is not only the use of the Kora, (that traditional Mandingo instrument made of a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin) but its use along with many modern instruments. His style was labeled “Kora Rock” by Afrik.com a Paris-based web magazine. And he gladly accepts the label.

"Musical fusion is very important to us although it got us in trouble with the master M’bary Kouyaté.”

He is referring to his musical mentor who took him on and introduced him to the marvels of the Kora. M’bary Kouyaté was then the director of the National Ballet of Guinea, a descendant of griots and a man known throughout the capital city of Conakry for his amazing grasp of the musical traditions of his people.

“He thought me everything. Everything a griot must know he thought me.”

So the master was a little unhappy when he heard the songs of Ba Cissoko’s first album Sabolan released in 2004.

“He didn’t like the fact that we modernized the Kora,” Cissoko says. But that desire to blend the traditional rhythms with more pop-sounding tunes is what attracts the young crowds.

World Music it is called these days. The leaders of that style in the African continent being Youssou N’dour, Angelique Kidjo, Salif Keita and Mory Kanté.

Ba relishes the adulation, while recognizing the importance of the old ways.

“You have to respect traditions. They’ve lasted for a reason. When we are in Conakry, master Kouyaté always makes sure we get invited to a wedding or a celebration where we can play more traditional Kora and witness the way things were done in the days of our ancestors.”

Ba Cissoko is hard at work on his new album Adiouna (The World in peul) on the heels of his recent nomination for a RFI Musique du Monde Award. This one unlike the first will include more collaborations with other artists including possibly Neneh Cherry who last shone on the song “Seven Seconds” with Youssou N’dour.

Another possible inclusion is the British-Columbia-based Alpha Yaya Diallo who encouraged Ba Cissoko to visit Canada.

Catch Ba Cissoko in his first Canadian performance on the CIBC Stage at Harbourfront on July 2nd at 9:30 pm. For details call 416.973.4000

Eloi Minka & Melvin Bakandika are two of the founders of AfroToronto.com.