Outrage after Malian Kora player’s handmade instrument destroyed by US customs

The musician asked whether US customs would have dismantled a Stradivarius violin

By Anna Pujol-Mazzini 
DAKAR6 February 2020 • 3:57pm
The Telegraph

Ballaké Sissoko found his instrument in pieces

A top Malian kora player said his handmade instrument was destroyed by US custom officials as he flew back from a concert, sparking outrage over the treatment of African musicians performing abroad.

After a two-week tour of the United States, top Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko was flying back to Paris when he found his handmade instrument in pieces.

Inside the case, a note in Spanish from US customs read: “intelligent security saves time.”

A photo of his kora, a 21-string harp played by the Mandinka people of West Africa, posted on Facebook shows the instrument lying on the floor with its neck separated from the rest and strings wrapped around it.

“Would US customs have dared to dismantle a Stradivarius?” he asked in his post. “This is […] a reflection of the kind of cultural ignorance and racism that is taking over in so many parts of the world and that endangers the best of musicians from Africa and elsewhere.”

West African kora players, who pass on the tradition from one generation to the next, are respected musicians and storytellers, with names such as Ballake Sissoko and Toumani Diabate from Mali, Sona Jobarteh from the Gambia, and Djeli Moussa Diawara from Guinea attracting big crowds at home and abroad.

Ballaké Sissoko’s Kora dismantled, allegedly by US customs

Sissoko’s instrument had been tailor-made to his needs, allowing him to quickly change tune for concerts, and is “impossible to replace,” he said. “Even if all the components that have been disassembled were intact, it takes weeks before a kora of this calibre can return to its previous state of resonance.”

In Mali, such success brought danger for musicians after separatists rebels followed by jihadists took over the vast, arid north in 2012.

During the jihadist takeover, which lasted over six months, music was banned in northern cities, including Timbuktu. The militants confiscated instruments and forced artists to flee south, or live in exile abroad.

“In Mali, the jihadists threaten to destroy musical instruments, cut the tongues out of singers, and to silence Mali’s great musical heritage. And yet, ironically, it is the US customs that have in their own way managed to do this,” Sissoko’s statement added.

Although French and allied African troops intervened in 2013 to drive the armed Islamists out, car bombings, attacks and assassinations are still a regular occurence in the north, and many music events have not come back.

The US Transportation Security Administration did not respond to a request for comment.

Last year, Guinean musician N’Faly Kouyate said British Airways had broken his custom-made electric kora by putting it in the hold even though it had been designed to be stored in overhead lockers, and asked the airline to fund the repairs. The airline apologised for the damage. 

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