Ballaké Sissoko’s album Djourou is a mixture of solo work and collaborations with other artists who, at first glance, might not seem to have much in common with the Mandinka tradition Sissoko comes from. But in such collaborations magic is woven and that is very much the case on this album. If you’re not familiar with the Kora then it’s a West African instrument with 21 strings in tension against a dried gourd (calabash) body which brings a deep resonance to the sound and similar in tone to a harp. Malian Toumani Diabaté is probably the most famous player globally (and someone Sissoko has played with), but to watch anyone play the Kora is to marvel at how deft the artists fingers have to be to master the glissando runs synonymous with the instrument.
Djourou opens with ‘Demba Kunda’, a solo track, which shows the incredible virtuosity of Sissoko’s playing. Runs and trills cascade around you like a shower of sparks at night, bright pops of sounds which entrance and dazzle. Title track ‘Djourou’ is the album’s first collaboration with fellow kora player Sona Jobarteh who is the first woman to be classed as a virtuoso in the Griot family tradition. They move around each other in a tender dance with rolling passages accompanied by firework kora runs and Jobarteh’s beautifully rich voice. ‘Jeu sur la Symphonie Fantastique’ features clarinettist Patrick Messina (a world renowned orchestral player) & cellist Vincent Segal (with whom Sissoko has previously released two albums). Messina provides a strong tune at the start before spinning a constellation of notes around the kora and cello which provides the kind of propulsive, dampened rhythm that reminded me of the work of label mate Blick Bassy.
The tracks ‘Guelen’ and ‘Kora’ features very different vocalists. On ‘Guelen’ Salif Keïta (hailed as the ‘Golden voice of Africa’) brings his strong but plaintive vocals to bear on a track where the kora does not get in the way of what Keita does best. In stark contrast ‘Kora’ (yes, the instrument gets its own theme song) features Nouvelle Vague’s Camille (singer on NV covers such as ‘Guns Of Brixton’ and ‘Making Plans For Nigel’). She brings a smoky jazz club sensibility with her voice close to the mic and intimate. ‘Mande Tabolo’ (the name of Sissoko’s trio) is a spellbinding demonstration of how the kora can be the bass, rhythm, and soloist in the right hands.
One of the most striking collaborations on the album is ‘Frotter Les Mains’ (Rub Hands) as it features French rapper Oxmo Puccino. This is the essence of how two worlds can come together and be completely complimentary. The depth of Puccino’s voice as he raps in tandem with Sissoko’s playing is a sheer joy and one of Djourou’s highlights. ‘Kadidja’ features singer (and producer, and painter and songwriter) Piers Faccini on a beautiful folk song elevated by the intertwined guitar and kora and in support of a haunting tune. The final track brings the final collaboration, this time with French rock band Feu! Chatterton, with an impassioned vocal performance driving Sissoko to push the kora to its limit.
This is an outstanding album that transcends the potential pitfalls of working with multiple artists. Each song has its place and creates a whole that is breath-taking in its beauty. The skill of Ballaké Sissoko’s playing is astonishing but the true skill is when you stop appreciating the technical aspects of the performance and just lose yourself in the music. It made it a hard album to review as there were more than a few occasions when I found I had stopped typing and had been simply transported somewhere else; swept up in the music. The marriage of traditional and modern is seamless and I found a shining joy in Djourou and I sincerely hope it finds as wide and audience as possible.
Ballaké Sissoko is on NØ FØRMAT! a label that is well worth checking out for other great artists such as Oumou Sangaré, Blick Bassy and Mélissa Laveaux and if you want to go even further down the Kora rabbit hole, then BBC4’s Handmade in Africa series featured all the intricate steps Senegalese craftsman Seydou Kane has to go through to make one. It’s gentle TV and hypnotic to watch.
Review by Paul F Cook