It turns out that the cello is just about the perfect instrument to compliment the kora. The cello is legato where the kora is pointillist; it is lustrous and mellow where the kora is bright and brittle; and yet both instruments share a profound capacity for serenity, so that even as they contrast most sharply, they can remain unified in purpose. That said, in the wrong hands, a confab of cello and kora could easily devolve into a New Age snooze fest or a tedious exercise in classical music light. So the success of Chamber Music must really be credited to the remarkable musicians who created it, and to their playful, confident, and utterly transparent musical friendship.
Ballaké Sissoko descends from griot royalty in Mali, and he is a veteran of numerous experimental projects. He played second kora to his next-door neighbor Toumani Diabaté in Taj Mahal’s Kulanjan project, and on the kora men’s tribute to their distinguished fathers, New Ancient Strings. Sissoko has also recorded with his own Malian ensemble, and with Italian minimalist pianist Ludovico Einaudi. Segal is a classically trained cellist with a wild streak. He has ventured into electric rock, trip hop and such, and when he found that Malian arranger, keyboardist, all-around maestro Cheick Tidiane Seck was his neighbor in Paris, the two took to sharing meals of African food together. In the process, Segal’s African music education advanced.
Sissoko and Segal met at a festival of string players and became friends right away. They spent long hours improvising together, playing without speaking, enjoying one another’s company and musicianship without any firm notion of performing or recording. Now that they’ve gone public, what we get is an unhurried set of songs, almost completely devoid of ostentation or competitive riffery. This is a deeply honed meditation, a musical love dance, and a recording that will likely endure when so many of today’s cross genre collaborations have faded.
The stately processional quality and reverent harmonic progressions of classic Mande music—Sissoko’s musical inheritance—certainly have a presence in these pieces, especially “Chamber Music,” “Histoire de Molly,” and “Halinkata Djoubé.” But the references are subtle, in no way a rote refashioning of the familiar griot repertoire. And there are so many other flavors, Greek rembetiko on “Houdesti,” pentatonic Sonrai music of the Malian north on “Wo Ye N’Bnougobine,” and the shuffle of Wassoulou rhythm, with a hint of takamba, on “Regret—A Kader Barry.” The songs are varied, from the playful “Ma-Ma” FC, designed to lure the musicians’ children’s attentions briefly away from televisions and hand-held devices, to the spare, celestial, drone-based “Future.”
Segal’s inventiveness with the cello is noteworthy throughout. He shifts from plucking to bowing to sliding and tapping. On the pulsing, hypnotic “Oscarine,” he produces ethereal, whistling harmonics close to human voices. Once again, none of this feels showy or gimmicky. Rather it reveals the ingenuity and masterful technique of a musician drawn to making his instrument do things it has never done before. Stalwart and solid, Sissoko is the siren who lures Segal into unfamiliar seas, and together, they take us on a voyage of tremendous subtlety and elegance. Chamber Music sets a new standard for instrumental experimentation involving the venerable kora.