Yacouba Sissoko playing the kora.
By Gianna Volpe
You need to have a pulse in order to keep music alive, according to drummer Claes Brondal, one of the founders of the weekly Jazz Jam sessions at Bay Burger in Sag Harbor, and upcoming special guest Yacouba Sissoko, has been strumming his 21-stringed kora for almost as long as he’s had one.
“My grandfather told my parents he could see signs from when I was a baby that I would be a great kora player someday because, before I could even walk, I would use the kora to pull myself up,” said Sissoko, 40, of his history as a musician growing up in Mali on the west coast of Africa. “He made a little kora with about ten strings for me to play and even though I was only pretending to play because I was very little, I would always cry to have the kora.”
The kora, an instrument with strings traditionally made from antelope skin, has been played for centuries by entertainers of the Malian king and his court, according to Sissoko
“The kora players would use it to play for the king to tell him the history of Mali and his ancestors and to give the king the confidence to do what he must do to lead the country,” he said.
Sissoko began learning to play the highly-revered instrument at nine years old and was already a master by the time he was 14 years old. “I did not have a lot of friends, so I didn’t hang out after school,” he said. “I would just be so excited to come home after school to practice kora.”
Sissoko was very close to his mother, Oumou Tounkara, a well-known singer from Mali who was often invited to perform in North Korea for leader, Kim Il-Sung.
Sissoko said his mother was so famous that she was one of the country’s few to have their body displayed after death.
“They honored my mom’s body after she died and they invited the TV cameras to come to the funeral to acknowledge and recognize her service because she brought the name of our country outside the continent,” said Sissoko, who credits his mother for making him the person he is today.
“She would tell me to always have a good heart and to tell the truth and keep my word because if I did then I would go far,” he said. Sissoko’s mother also nurtured Sissoko’s love of Western music as a youth, buying him CDs of American musicians like Michael Jackson and Tracy Chapman.
“I would even tell my friends to call me American,” said Sissoko of his Western obsession. “I would say, ‘If you are going to call me anything, call me American.’”
Sissoko was finally given his first chance to come to America at 18 years old when he went on tour with a band from the Ivory Coast called Ensemble Koteba. He currently lives in New York City.
Sissoko’s love of Western music—pop, rock, Latin and jazz included—made him an easy choice as a Jazz Jam special guest, according to Brondal.
Brondal met Sissoko while attending a Japanese-inspired lantern-lighting in Central Park where he said musicians from all over the world played as folks lit paper lanterns off into the growing darkness of night.
Brondal said approaching Sissoko, who was among those musicians, to ask him to be a special guest of the Jazz Jam was an easy feat, to say the least.
“He was the warmest, most welcoming and nicest guy I’ve seen in a long time,” said Brondal. “He said he would be more than happy to share his music with us.”
The master kora player, who has played with greats like Harry Belafonte, Regina Carter and Paul Simon, will perform with the Jazz Jam at the Bay Burger on Thursday, October 24. The event is as free as ever. All are invited to listen and experienced musicians are encouraged to introduce themselves after the show, said Brondal.
For a sampling of Yacouba Sissoko playing the kora visit:
The Jazz Jam Session at Bay Burger is held every Thursday at 7 p.m. featuring a variety of musicians each week. For more information, visit thejamsession.org/all-star-super-band.com.