Live Review: Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal at the Seattle Art Museum 10/22

all photos by Daniel Sheehan for Earshot Jazz Festival

Review by Emily Slider, DJ assistant for Wo’Pop on KEXP

The Earshot Jazz Festival has been in full swing all over Seattle (ending November 12th), and on a recent Sunday night at the Seattle Art Museum, Earshot hosted an evening with Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal. The two entered, dressed formally for their culture. For Segal, a French cellist, his idea of formal was a suit coat and a button-down shirt, but for Sissoko, a Kora player from Mali, formal was a shiny, bright, monochromatic outfit.

Sissoko began the concert by conjuring the lyrical harp sound from his Kora, a double-bridged “harp-lute” made from the calabash gourd. His eyes closed, he drifted into his own world with his fingers dancing on the bridge of his instrument.

The Kora has a double notched bridge supported by the body of the instrument and tucked behind the neck. To play the Kora, the player uses only their thumb and index fingers to pluck at the strings, creating a sound often compared to a harp. After introducing himself musically, Sissoko continued to dance on his strings while Vincent Segal answered with his cello. During the first piece, the music transformed from a passive listening experience to an active conversation between musicians, transcending language and culture. Each took their turn dominating the conversation and setting the pace at which the instruments communicated. The music was clearly not held fast to a structure, and without a previous knowledge of their music, the listener may not be able to tell if the music was completely improvised or not improvised at all.

The cello and kora sounded playful and the faces of both Segal and Sissoko reflected their deep enjoyment while playing together. The two would exchange eye contact as if the repeated motifs were an inside joke between them. Even with their tight chemistry, they also seemed to be focused completely on their instruments. The duo was on their own planets, yet they were in each other’s orbit.

Segal played the cello as if the category of “stringed instrument” were only a mere suggestion. During one song, he pressed the bow onto the strings so lightly and pulled his fingers up the neck in such a way that his cello sounded like a wind instrument. The voice of the cello almost turned into that of a didgeridoo! In the next piece, Segal played in such a way that his cello sounded like a flute. Later yet, he used his bow and his hands to turn his cello into a percussive instrument. For a cellist with formal European training, his playing was anything but concert-hall stuffy.

Between pieces, Segal addressed the crowd and recalled performing in the streets of Morrocco while children played and dogs barked. Imagining this music outside of a performance hall seemed more natural. Segal posed the question “what is tradition?” as he spoke about his own formal training and Sissoko’s griot upbringing. As a griot, Sissoko was born into a line of musicians and raised to be a master of his instrument. Segal suggested that “tradition is very complex”, which is a great way to explain how two musicians from very different traditions could collaborate with so much success. The applause grew louder after every piece they performed. The audience couldn’t accept the end of the performance, and the duo obliged with two encores. During the final piece, Segal tied an additional string onto his cello which he used to play the instrument by pulling it upwards and outwards. I have never seen or heard anything like what he did in that moment and I am not sure I can accurately describe the sound which emanated. The entire audience understood that what we were witnessing was total mastery of their art. I was blown away with their ability to tell stories and evoke imagery through their playing. The best way to sum up the evening is with the words Segal had earlier used to describe Beethoven’s messy compositional style: “It is not classical; it is revolution.”

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