Mali's kora is an aristocratic instrument and Djelimoussa Ballaké Sissoko is one of the expert players.
Mali has given birth to any number of expert kora players and Djelimoussa Ballaké Sissoko is one of them. I heard him for the first time a few years ago when a track from New Ancient Strings, an album that he shares with his more famous cousin Toumani Diabaté, appeared on a compilation that I found in a bargain bin. The track was "Yamfa"; the compilation was Unwired: Africa. Their playing had a casual beauty that I liked. The simplicity of the two instruments working together made everyone else on the CD sound unnecessarily busy, as if they were running around, shouting and sweating and falling on the floor in an effort to do the same thing that these two men were doing with limpid and sweatless calm.
The pair of them repeat that performance once on Tomora, in a tune called "Kanou". For the length of that track, New Ancient Strings has returned. There's the same air of dignified excitement as they plant each note on the string, and the same pause behind each sound as the notes seem to stop and ponder their existences before the next ones arrive to snuff them out. One kora moves slowly, the other quickly; one draws back quietly, the other pours itself over the top of its partner. A well-played kora is one of music's most unadulterated pleasures. The sound is firm yet sweet, caressing but strong, never pandering or seeming to beg for your approval. It's an aristocratic instrument.
But Diabaté is only making a guest appearance. After "Kanou" is finished, he's gone. On the rest of the album Sissoko is accompanied by a group of his own called the Ballaké Sissoko Trio. The Trio consists of Sissoko on the kora, Mahamadou Kamissoko on the long, camel-coloured n'goni lute, and Fassély Diabate on the wooden balafon xylophone. Sissoko is listed as the composer of every song, bar one, but he's not an attention hog. The balafon gets plenty of leeway. Every time Fassély hits a bar it issues a hollow liquid chuckle, the sound of creek water running over stones. Sissoko uses this balafon as he and Toumani used one another's koras -- as a counterpoint, as a contrast, as a Mande new-roots version of a jazz accompaniment.
Other, non-Trio musicians sometimes step in to join them. There's Demba Camara on the bolon harp, Fanga Diawara on the single-stringed sokou fiddle, and Aboubacrine Yattara (the photograph on the inlay shows him with his head bundled up in clean white cloth like a Tuareg, a suggestion of northern tribal loyalties that is neither supported nor denied by the nonexistent notes) on the bass n'goni, or n'goni bâ. Of course this Camara is not the same Demba Camara who sang with Bambeya Jazz, yet I felt a small depth charge of shock when I saw the familiar name on the CD case. "Demba Camara? Isn't he dead?"
All of these other instruments are called into service on "Handarezo" and "Berekoy", two songs that are as close as Tomora comes to big production numbers. The strings fall forward, curling in spirals and chasing one another's tails, giving evidence of an Arab influence somewhere along the line. "Handaarezoo, handaareh-zoh," sings Alboulkadri Barry, interjecting with a voice of declarative crispness, his tone raw along the edges as the sokou twists itself squeakily around him and eventually takes over.
Of the ten tracks on the album, seven are purely instrumental, two are sung by Barry, and the tenth is complemented by the voice of Rokia Traoré. This is "Nimân Don" and it's her own work. "Nimân Don" is the only song not credited to Sissoko. The kora and balafon set the scene for her with a tripping beat, and she steps in, lilting. Her voice flutters, she sounds a little husky, she pauses and the kora flickers in the gaps between one word and the next. The song has her usual dryness, the same dryness you can hear on her albums. "Nimân Don" is restrained in comparison with "Hanarezo" and "Berekoy". Traoré's song uses the sound of the instruments as a framing device or backdrop behind and around her voice, while in the other two songs the voice and the instruments roll together as equal partners in the same thick stew.
Sissoko is not an innovator in the same restless league as his cousin. Still, he's a composer with a deft touch. He draws you in at the beginning of the album with the promise implicit in a few elegant solo bars and rounds everything off decisively at the end with a twing. If you like the acoustic Mande music that has been coming out of Mali since the end of the 1990s -- Salif Keita and Moffou; Traoré's Wanita; Toumani's Symmetric Orchestra; even the work of the fabulous Kandia Kouyate, for whom Sissoko worked as an accompanist before her stroke -- then Tomora is well worth your time.