Ba, when I first saw you perform at the Sfinks festival a number of years ago, the group only consisted of three kora players. The band seems to have evolved quite a bit since then?
Ba Cissoko: "Yeah, we started out as a trio, but after a while I felt I wanted to expand the band a bit, so we added a guitarist and a percussionist and these days we perform as a five-some."
Ba Cissoko equals the electrified kora. Were you the first to experiment with that?
Ba Cissoko: "My cousin Sekou (Kouyate, red.) came to France with master M'Badi Kouyate. He came up with the idea to use a pedal and install an amplifier in the kora, but for M'Badi this was all taboo; in his opinion, the kora was a traditional instrument that should remain as it had been for centuries. Sekou persevered nonetheless, and when he came to talk to me about his idea, I was immediately intrigued. We decided to form a band concentrating on playing our own modern kora music. I've never turned my back on tradition, though, if need be we can still play all the traditional pieces as well, but the kora has proven to be a very versatile instrument on which you can play just about everything from jazz to reggae!"
It didn't take long before people started calling you the "Jimi Hendrix of the kora" and you really acknowledged that title by calling your second album 'Electric Griot Land' (in analogy with Hendrix' 'Electric Ladyland', red.).
Ba Cissoko: "That whole Jimi Hendrix thing started right here in Antwerp! The first time I heard they called me like that was the day after the concert at the Sfinks festival you just mentioned."
You dedicated the title track of your latest album, 'Seno' ("agriculture", red.), to your grandmother.
Ba Cissoko: "I was born in the village of Koundara and when I was still a little boy, my grandmother always used to take me out in the fields with her. She grew crops like rice and corn, but at that time I didn't pay much attention to what she was doing because I never realized the importance of agriculture. My grandmother was a strong woman who loved to work and she also taught me to sing. Her name was Djeli Fatoumata Kouyate and I've named my kora in her honor."
The tracks on 'Seno' have a more traditional sound than the ones on 'Sabolan' or 'Electric Griot Land'. Was that a conscious choice?
Ba Cissoko: "Yes, we had already experimented with the electrification effects on the first two albums and I wanted to bring some variation to the music, so that's why I returned to a more classic acoustic sound."
Your music is heavily influenced by reggae.
Ba Cissoko: "I love reggae! When I was still living in Guinea, I had a job as an entertainer at the Camayenne hotel, the largest hotel in Conakry, and I kept getting requests to play something by Bob Marley. In the beginning I always answered it was impossible to play reggae on a kora, but eventually I gave it a try and that's how my love for that music started. Still, it's not easy to play these rhythms that are really intended for the guitar on a kora!"
Your father also played the kora, but it wasn't he who taught you how to play the instrument.
Ba Cissoko: "No, my father was the leader of the Djoliba Ballet (During the time Guinea was governed by Sékou Touré he put special emphasis on Guinean culture through live performances and a system of local, regional, and national competitions that recruited the greatest artists of the land. These artists were "educated" in training centers through a regime of very strict discipline. The best students were chosen for the Djoliba National Ballet, which was intended to serve as a showcase for Sékou Touré's revolution in Guinea, red.) so he didn't have the time to teach me. Furthermore, at that time I wasn't too interested in music yet; my life was all about football at that stage. My uncle, master M'Badi Kouyate, who's also the father of Kourou, the bass player in the band, and of Sekou, who plays the kora, eventually took me under his wing. I was born in a griot family, so normally the tradition would have been passed down from father to son, but in my case exceptionally it was my uncle. When I had sufficiently mastered the instrument, master Kouyate took me on tour with him; we travelled from village to village and eventually ended up all the way in Gambia and Senegal."
You just mentioned you were a big football fanatic as a youth. I believe you're still involved in the sport, no?
Ba Cissoko: "I still am, yes. A while ago I was contacted by the fan club of the Guinean national team and they wanted to appoint me as their ambassador. In that capacity, I try to help out youths who are trying to build a career in football but lack the means to buy the proper gear and so on. I love the sport, so I try to do what I can."