Artist Profiles: Ballake Sissoko

Ballake Sissoko – Photo by Benoit Peverelli

The sound of Ballake Sissoko’s 21-string kora identifies him, along with Toumani Diabate, as one of the best kora players of a new generation of musicians in Mali. His concerts with Taj Mahal’s Kulanjan project brought him international attention.

Ballake Sissoko is the son of Jelimady Sissoko, grand master of the Manding kora, a harp with twenty-one strings whose crystalline sound has won over audiences world-wide. With his ‘big brother’ Toumani Diabate, the son of Sidiki Diabate, another illustrious figure of the jeli (oral historians and musicians) tradition, Ballake is considered one of the best kora players of the new generation. He first learned the instrument very early on at his father’s school. At the age of 14, he replaced his father in the Ensemble Instrumental National and by the late eighties he was also playing in the electric bands of the most famous jelimuso.

He remembers the difficulty of initially playing with virtuoso guitar players like Bouba Sacko and Jeli Madi Tounkara, who had picked up the techniques of the ngoni but also used western scales and rock riffs. Rising to the challenge, he was the first local kora player to master western modes and still provide the rhythmic structure to accompany the dance steps of the singers. Simultaneously following different melodic lines with his thumbs and index fingers, Jeli Moussa’s playing combines a bass accompaniment, the harmonic progressions of the rhythm guitar and intricate solo improvisations. Jeli Moussa works regularly with Kandia Kouyate, and together they toured the USA, Europe and Australia.

After performing with the prestigious Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali, and accompanying many Malian singers, he came to fame by performing solo or in duet with Toumani Diabate, Taj Mahal and a host of other musicians. In the 1980s, Malian kora music was once more revolutionized when Jeli Moussa Sissoko (called Ballake Sissoko) and Toumani Diabate, the sons of Jeli Madi Sissoko and Sidiki Diabate, introduced chord progressions played on the guitar into their father’s repertoire.

Open to every new adventure and encounter, Ballake Sissoko is a gifted instrumentalist who, inspired by tradition, was able to forge a personal style. A visionary figure and fine melodist, he is an excellent accompanist and superb composer.

On Ballake: Kora Music From Mali, Ballake is surrounded by young musicians, friends and fellows met in various ways in Bamako, and his wife, the singer Mama Draba. Fassery Diabate, son of Keletigui Diabate, bala (West African xylophone) expert and well-known performer of Malian music, freed himself too, of tradition, while still respecting its spirit. Extremely brilliant, he never falls into just technical proficiency, but exhibits astonishing maturity. Adama Tounkara is Jelimady Tounkara’s nephew, the ‘guitar hero’ of Mali music, respected conductor of the Mali’s Super Rail Band. He’s one of those many young artists who have specialized in the study of the ngoni, a small, four-stringed traditional lute dating back to the 12th century (like the bala), and which was once played at the court of Sundiata Keita, founder of the Manding Empire. It is no doubt the ancestor of the banjo and is part and parcel of the colorful sound of traditional and modern Mali music. A difficult instrument, but one which Adama Tounkara perfectly masters. Hearing this very young virtuoso, you are immediately struck by the finesse of his playing sound and phrasing and the subtle swing of his very jazzy inventions.

The youngest of the group, Aboubacar Sidiki Dembele, provides solid back-up on the bolon, ancestor of the acoustic bass, and indispensable instrument for any respectable Manding group. Mama Draba, younger and less well-known abroad than her compatriots Kandia Kouyate, Amy Koita or Oumou Sangare, is still one of the greatest singers of the new Manding music. With her deep, powerful voice and impeccable phrasing, she’s one of the great performers of the epic jeli-style Bambara and Malinke traditions.

Ballaké Sissoko is one of the members of 3MA, the meeting of three African masters: Ballaké Sissoko on kora, Moroccan ud player Driss El Maloumi, and Malagasy musician Rajery. In 2006 Sissoko, El Maloumi and Rajery met and later released a remarkable self-titled debut album in 2008.

Another project involving Ballaké Sissoko is a duo with French cellist Vincent Segal. Their superb debut album Chamber Music was critically acclaimed. The duo followed with an equally excellent second album in 2015, Musique du Nuit.

3MA released Anarouz (“Hope”) in 2018. In addition to Ballaké Sissoko, Driss El Maloumi, and Rajery, the album also includes percussionist Khalid Kouhen.


New Ancient Strings / Nouvelles Cordes Anciennes (Hannibal Records, 1999)
Déli (Label Bleu 2000
Master Musicians Meeting Club (Volume 1) (Saraswati, 2002
Kora Music From Mali (Indigo, 2002)
Diario Mali (Ponderosa Music, 2003)
Tomora (Label Bleu, 2004)
3MA (Madagascar Mali Maroc), with Rajery, Ballaké Sissoko, Driss El Maloumi (Contre-Jour, 2008)
Chamber Music, with Vincent Segal (No Format, 2009)
At Peace (No Format, 2013)
Musique De Nuit, with Vincent Segal (No Format, 2015)
The Routes of Slavery 1444-1888 (Alia Vox, 2017)
Anarouz (Mad Minute Music, 2017)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.


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