CD Review – Ballake Sissoko “At Peace”
During the worst days of the region’s civil war, a lone cello player named Vedran Smailovic offered his music to the chill morning air as families, commuters and hungry people in search of food rushed by him on the broken streets of Sarajevo. I wonder if there are kora players perched on stools in marketplaces and street corners of Bamako and Sikasso trying to do the same thing as Mali slips deeper into its seemingly unresolvable internal conflict. If it’s too dangerous for people to go out, I hope that out there somewhere in the battle zone someone is queuing up Ballake Sissoko’s ‘At Peace’ on their music player and tilting the speakers out the window so that its healing sounds can fill the air and remind people that life is worth living and that the dark days will one day be over.
As a country, Mali has suffered more than most. A desert nation whose few large cities are surrounded by wide expanses of parched devastation, Mali has been affected by conflicts for generations now. As in Sarajevo, much of the acrimony is based on race, and as the west tries to figure out whether to support an undeniably corrupt black regime or an equally unsavory Islamist insurgency, people continue to die and be displaced in droves every day. Libraries are being looted, manuscripts and artworks – some far older than the treasures of the Louvre or Vatican – are being torched, while musicians and their instruments have been banned. It’s a situation that gets worse by the day, yet if you listen to the gorgeous melodies arising out of Ballake Sissoko’s kora, you would swear that all was right under the sun and that the world was a beautiful place. It’s an old story, but it’s impossible not to wonder how such beautiful, heart stopping music can be created in such a challenging and hopeless environment.
It’s not that Ballake Sissoko is an anomaly and that the rest of the music that comes out of the country sounds like Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen on a bad night. Toumani Diabate, Ali Farka Toure, Aboubacar Diabate and Salif Keita all come to mind as artists from Mali whose work has remained potent, uplifting and optimistic in the face of terrible suffering and deprivation. In any setting, the music on ‘At Peace’, the follow up to ‘Chamber Music’, Ballake Sissoko’s 2009 collaboration with the French cellist, Vincent Segal, would be inspiring; in the context of its creation it is nearly miraculous. From the opening strings of ‘Maimouna’, the introductory track, to the last few echoes of ‘Kalanso’ that closes the album, ‘At Peace’ creates a musical universe that is all its own. Airy, light and rhythmic at one turn, taut and questioning at the next, the melodies that Sissoko creates on ‘At Peace’ belong to the highest pantheon of human musical achievement. That’s quite an assertion, to be sure, but the more I listen to the album, the more difficult it is to come to understand that it was created by a man and not an angel or a divine force. Simply put, the music is better than we deserve. It is better than we are in every respect.
Walking through the local wetlands this morning, I listened to ‘At Peace’ as the sun rose over the frozen pond where Canada Geese poked at the ice in search of a place to rest and groom themselves. Yeats’ phrase ‘the world’s more full of weeping’ ran through my head as traffic rushed by just out of earshot and Sissoka’s kora painted colours in the clouds. I recalled similar moments over the years: Ravi Shankar, ninety and fragile, whispering and making love to his sitar during his last Vancouver concert, Abdullah Ibrahim on the solo piano in a small community centre, Jerry Garcia finding his way to beauty as the sun went down by the river in Eugene, Oregon. Each of these moments offered a treasure, pointed at something better, and provided respite in an otherwise chaotic and stressful life. ‘At Peace’ is perfect. There won’t be a better record in 2013. It is a gift to the world, and if the world were just a tiny bit more forgiving and if it learned to open its ears as well as its heart, ‘At Peace’ might just carry a key that if turned, would be enough to save us.
You can also read this review at: www.restlessandreal.blogspot.ca
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