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WQXR Features

Café Concert: Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal

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Video: Sissoko and Segal perform live in the WQXR Café

At a time when world music is awash with chaotic, cross-genre "fusions,” the duo of Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal are a reminder that the best musical marriages are born from simplicity.

Sissoko plays the traditional kora, an 18-string lute-harp from his native Mali, while Ségal is a French cellist who plays in the trip-hop band Bumcello. The two first crossed paths when Sissoko approached Segal after a concert by the pop group Chocolate Genius.

At first they jammed together informally. But as Sissoko often stopped in Paris to make flight connections from Africa the two musicians sought opportunities to perform together more frequently. “What we’re doing was just improvisation, just jamming,” explained Segal, who is classically trained and has recorded and/or toured with popular artists such as Sting, Marianne Faithful, Elvis Costello and the hip-hop group Blackalicious. 

If the kora and cello seems like a curious combination, it’s because it is. “We try and be acoustic as possible because a lot of people in France just think African music is percussion and dance music,” said Segal. “Of course, it’s not.” The two musicians have found that concert presenters don’t always know how to categorize them, with their sound being a hybrid of African and European idioms.

Given the kora is usually performed solo or in an ensemble with a djembe or saba (African drums), Segal needed to find a method of integrating the cello that preserved its lineage. In the WQXR Café he plucked the strings and imitated instruments like the Gnawa guimbri, a lute-like instrument from Morocco or the balafon, a xylophone-like instrument found in West Africa. Sissoko, who studied with the kora legend Toumani Diabate, unleashed streams of glistening, delicate patterns.

Sissoko and Segal have performed together on tours, and in 2009 released the album "Chamber Music." The duo stopped by the studios while in town performing at the Live@365 series at the City University of New York.

Segal noted that the duo is increasingly approached by classical presenters searching for ways to connect with new audiences. “I like when we play classical or jazz or world music but we can play as really quiet as possible,” said Segal. “We don’t do that in rock much.” He frequently turns down rock presenters who wish to book them in clubs where audiences talk throughout the performances and the ambiance is noisy.

“If you only listen to the noise of the audience we can’t play,” he said.

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise