I won't pretend that I knew anything about Ba Cissoko or the kora before tonight, but I left the High Noon Saloon Thursday night after seeing the supremely entertaining West African dance band curious about both.
The kora may be the most fascinating instrument I've seen and watching a skilled player is hypnotic. Made from half a calabash (a type of gourd) covered with cow skin, the kora has ten strings on the right side and eleven on the left. Only the thumb and index finger on each hand are used to pluck the strings, while the other three fingers support the instrument by holding the sticks on each side of the instrument's body.
At least that is the way it is traditionally played. If there is one thing Ba Cissoko do well, it is blend the traditional with modern. Ba Cissoko, the name of both the band and of its charismatic leader and vocalist who also plays the kora and percussion, features percussionist Ibrahim Bah and Cissoko's very handsome cousins Kourou Kouyate (on bass) and Sekou Kouyate (on electric kora).
Sekou Kouyate has been called the Jimi Hendrix of the kora, and it is easy to see why. No, he didn't light it on fire or play the instrument with his teeth, but like Hendrix he has found new and innovative ways to play his instrument. Rather than holding it the usual way, he attached a guitar strap, allowing his fingers more freedom and at times they were a blur. He also plugs in to a series of effects pedals, which makes it sound less like a harp and more like an electric guitar.
The band is touring in support of their record Electric Griot Land, a nod to both Hendrix and to the West African griot tradition of poets, storytellers and wandering musicians. Even though the lyrics were in French, there was still an opportunity for a call and response. Percussionist Bah left the odd, helmet-like drum he had been playing most of the night and came to the edge of the stage carrying a more traditional-looking one. As he pounded out a rhythm, the crowd answered back with handclaps.
The show was a warm-up for the Marquette Waterfront Festival, a neighborhood World music weekend (June 9-10), so it wasn't surprising that the crowd of over two hundred resembled a typical east side festival crowd. However, it was surprising that it took them till the fourth song to start dancing in earnest. Once they did, they kept it going for the entire two hour set, breaking only when the band did, and cheering loudly for more at the end.
Following the band's one song encore, the crowd filtered out, tired but happy.