Ba Cissoko

Born : 1967 in Koundara (Guinée)
Country : Guinea
Language : Peul / Malinké
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : african music / world music

Ba Cissoko released his debut album at the age of 36, which gave the talented Guinean kora-player ample time to collaborate with other musicians. Ba’s innovative mix of traditional kora sounds with rock, reggae and blues influences and his lyrics – which alternate between the main Guinean languages of Malinké, Susu and Peul – have helped him carve out a distinctive reputation both at home and abroad.

Ba Cissoko released his debut album at the age of 36, which gave the talented Guinean kora-player ample time to collaborate with other musicians. Ba’s innovative mix of traditional kora sounds with rock, reggae and blues influences and his lyrics – which alternate between the main Guinean languages of Malinké, Susu and Peul – have helped him carve out a distinctive reputation both at home and abroad.

Ba Cissoko was born in Koundara, 600 kilometres north of the Guinean capital Conakry, in 1967. His father was a prominent figure on the arts scene in Guinea, having founded the Djoliba ballet whom he accompanied on the kora during their shows. Ba showed no signs of following in his father's footsteps, however. As a young boy, he was not at all interested in playing a musical instrument and proclaimed, like so many of his peers at the time, that the kora was kitsch and old-fashioned. Ba did not seem to be too interested in his schoolwork, either. Despite the pressure exerted on him by his 'griot' (musician/storyteller who pass on the history of their people orally) father, Ba was ruled by one obsession in life: football. His passion remains to this day, in fact. (Indeed, Ba has gone on to become an official ambassador for the national team).

Ba showed no interest in music whatsoever until one day, when he was 14, his uncle dropped in for a family visit. Learning of Ba's problems at school, his uncle offered to take the boy under his wing and teach him the rudiments of the kora. Fortunately for Ba, this uncle was not just any kora-player. He happened to be M’Baty Kouyaté, a musician reputed to be one of the absolute maestros on the instrument. For his part, M’Baty Kouyaté was delighted to enlist his nephew as a pupil and transmit the family tradition through him, having failed to interest his own children in the kora.

As part of Ba's musical education, M’Baty Kouyaté took his nephew on a tour of the local villages. Ba accompanied his uncle at performances for local village chiefs and at various weddings and baptism parties. The uncle-and-nephew team also toured Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissao, Gambia and Senegal. Won over by his uncle's enthusiasm and patience, Ba gradually mastered the rudiments of the kora. But the young trainee was neither passionate about the instrument nor convinced of a future career as a kora-player. The event that revealed his vocation to him was a trip to Casamance in Senegal, where he met other young teenagers of his age studying at a kora school. Motivated by the atmosphere he discovered there, Ba threw himself into playing with a new passion. And he ended up spending several months at the school, learning kora tradition and setting out to the fields every morning with his fellow pupils to tend local rice crops.

In 1983, Ba went back to Guinea and set up home in Conakry. Thanks to an introduction from his uncle, he gained a place at the National Children's Theatre where he continued his musical apprenticeship under the watchful eye of the kora chiefs. In the meantime, he also tried his hand at a variety of other instruments. Two years later, Ba's uncle helped him obtain a place in the National Instrumental Ensemble of Guinea (where he himself was the director). But Ba was impatient to move on and play his own compositions.

After six months with the Ensemble, the ambitious young musician left the group and tried to find work playing on the hotel circuit in Conakry. But his attempts to break into the circuit all came to nought. Ba’s luck changed at the beginning of '86, however. The wife of an important hotel director came across Ba playing in a restaurant one night. Liking what she heard, she approached the young musician after his performance and suggested he come and play in her husband's establishment. Ba jumped at the chance and learnt to vary his repertoire, tailoring his playing to guests' requests and switching between blues, jazz, reggae and covers of western pop songs.

From Tamalalou to Ba Cissoko

In 1992, a French ‘coopérant’ (someone who performs their military service overseas working in the civil service sector) by the name of Gilles Poizat paid a visit to M’Bady Kouyaté. Poizat had already proved his worth as a trumpet-player, but he was now interested in learning the art of the kora. Kouyaté put the French musician in the capable hands of his nephew and the pair ended up getting on so well that they decided to form their own group together with a bunch of musicians and dancers. The group, called Tamalalou (The Traveller), forged their reputation on the live circuit over the next few years, playing concerts in Guinea and then France. Tamalalou’s talent was soon spotted by the “Nuits Métisses” association in France and the group found themselves invited over to France to collaborate with French bands such as Marseilles outfit No Quartet. Over the following years, Tamalalou went on to perform at the "Nuits Métisses" festival on several occasions.

Despite this burgeoning success, Tamalalou finally split up in 1999, individual members of the group deciding to go their own separate ways. Eager to continue a music career, Ba got together with two of M’Baty Kouyaté’s sons, Kourou and Sékou, and the cousins started working together as a trio under the name Ba Cissoko.

At the end of 1999, Ba Cissoko were invited to perform at the “Théâtre des Réalités” festival in the Malian capital Bamako. On their way to the festival, they happened to share a taxi with Ibrahim Bah, a musician whom they later recruited as the fourth member of the group. However, over the following months Ba Cissoko remained a trio when it came to their performances in France, as Ibrahim was unable to join them in Europe due to lack of finance. At the end of 2001, Ibrahim eventually made it to France, however.

From 2000 onwards, Ba Cissoko had set up a system of regularly flying back and forth between Europe and Guinea. The group went on to record two demos in France during their concerts and also created a series of tracks with French musicians such as Ivy Slam, a DJ based in Marseilles.

Studio Début

Ba Cissoko’s debut studio album, "Sabolan," recorded in Martigues (Provence) was finally released in October 2003. The songs on the album covered a wide range of themes from Taouyah, the neighbourhood in Conakry where the group live, to the issue of forced marriages "from another age."

From this point on, Ba devoted himself to a one-man mission, trying to improve working conditions and the availability of equipment on the music scene in Guinea. He began by setting up a café/concert venue to host gigs by young, up-and-coming musicians.

In 2004, Ba and his group embarked upon an intensive tour schedule, playing over 70 gigs across Belgium, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, Slovenia, Hungary, the Netherlands and Japan. The group soon found themselves in great demand on the festival circuit in France and further afield. They went on to perform at a number of major world music events including “Womad” (World Of Music, Arts & Dance), ”Womex” (World Music Expo) and the “Musiques métisses” festival in Angoulême, France.

In December, Ba and his group made it through to the finals of the RFI World Music Award 2004. The group were one of the three finalists invited to play at the French Cultural Centre in Bamako, Mali.

2005 proved to be a hectic year for Ba Cissoko. In May, he appeared at the first edition of the "Kora & Strings " festival in Conakry (20 – 22 May), wowing the audience with his unique kora-playing style, accompanied by Sékou Kouyaté on the electric kora, Kourou Kouyate on bass and Ibrahima Bah on percussion. In June, the group left Conakry for a while and headed off on a major international tour, playing dates across the U.K. Switzerland and Canada. They stopped off in Paris to perform at the annual "Fête de la Musique" on 21 June, Ba Cissoko having been chosen to represent Guinea at a special World Music event organised at the Ministère de la Coopération.

The group went on to perform in Dakar in December 2005, having made it through to the finals of RFI's World Music awards. Although the group put in an acclaimed performance on this occasion, they did not actually walk off with the award, the Prix Découverte 2005 going to Tchéka, a singer and guitarist from Cape Verde.

In 2006, the group embarked upon a series of collaborations with other artists, breaking the kora out of its traditional sphere. They performed live with the trumpet-player Gilles Poizat and also ventured into jazz, reggae and funk territory. Meanwhile, Ba Cissoko put down roots in Marseilles, hooking up with a local association called Nuits Métis that put them in contact with various musicians. Between 2004 and 2006, Ba Cissoko and his group concentrated on touring, performing over 200 concerts on the international scene.

2007: "Electric Griot Land"

In 2007, the group released "Electric Griot Land", an album which explored the potential of kora rock and experimented to the full with adding a special-effects pedal on the instrument. The Guinean group brought the house down when they performed to a packed audience at Le New Morning, in Paris, on 17 April 2007. After this, the group headed off for an intensive two-month tour of America.

The following year, Ba Cissoko appeared on the compilation "In The Name of Love, Africa Celebrates U2" with their cover of the Irish supergroup's hit "Sunday Bloody Sunday." 

The group re-emerged on the recording front in February 2009 with a new album entitled "Séno" ("agriculture") celebrating the cultural heritage of their homeland and acknowledging their personal mentors. "Séno" - dedicated to Ba's grandmother who took him out into the fields with her when he was a boy - finds the kora virtuoso and his group returning to acoustic basics after the Hendrix-style wizardry of "Electric Griot Land." The group's third album was composed in Conakry and "out on the road" on tour without the aid of an artistic director.

The group recently recruited an additional guitarist, Abdoulaye Kouyaté, meaning that there are now five of them preparing to hit the road to do the rounds of the summer festival circuit. Ba Cissoko embarked on their summer tour dates after playing a one-off gig  at La Bellevilloise, in Paris, on 19 March 2009.

July 2009

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