Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal Create a Vast, Starlit Sonic Universe at the French institute
Last night at the French Institute, cellist Vincent Segal and kora player Ballake Sissoko channeled the roots of a thousand bittersweetly beautiful African-American soul ballads. It was a confluence of stately baroque-inflected themes intermingled with an elegantly energetic update on a centuries-old African sound. Segal grinningly explained that the duo took their cues from the animal kingdom: their previous show might have been a bovine one, he said self-effacingly, but this one was a horse, a mighty, majestic one.
Their blend of western classical influences into richly ringing, celestially magical Malian kora music is as much a part of an ongoing tradition as it is cutting-edge. It was a night of deep contemplation, and vast panoramas, an alternate universe where beauty trumped anything that could be trumped.
When they weren’t joining forces as a single celestial generator, they exchanged roles carrying either a lead line or a melodic framework, Segal sometimes taking the role of bass player. The rhythms grew more complex and intertwining as the show went on, as the two left the page with a sometimes breathtaking improvisational flair. Yet it was the night’s subtlest and most intimate moments that resonated most with the crowd: shivery microtone-inducing rivulets and an unexpected and spot-on gnawa riff from Segal, or supersonically flickering, half-muted volleys from Sissoko.
They opened with a spare, distantly aching ballad, the first of several mysteriously crescendoing two-chord vamps, Segal’s judicious pizzicato and austere washes against the deep-sky ripples that have become Sissoko’s signature over the years. The duo went into even more starry ambience after that until Segal it into an abrupt, stark series of riffs to shift the mood from reverie to a matter-of-factly jaunty dance. There would be many of those, from both musicians, throughout the duo’s roughly hourlong set.
Segal anchored a melancholy vamp over an insistent 6/8 rhythm beneath a river of eighth notes, the duo cleverly working their way to doublespeed and then back Sissoko’s sepulchrally dancing figures grew closer and emerged triumphantly from the shadows as Segal maintained a hypnotic pulse. Then it was Segal’s turn to serve as exorcist. From there the two wove a spare, slowly crescendoing, plaintive melody over a wavelike, recurrently waltzlike beat punctuated by Segal’s simple, rising accents, echoed more vigorously by Sissoko as it went on. It brought one of New York’s most important musical impresarios to tears.
Segal played percussion as Sissoko bullt a dense thicket of hypnotically leaping phrases; then Segal went back to the cello as Sissoko made a big anthem out of it. The two ended the show on a more delicate, sparsely contemplative note. For the first of the encores, kora wizard Sekouya Diabate’s wife Tariba emerged from the audience to sing the first encore, a Malian praise song, unamplified, in her arrestingly intense, smoky alto. It seemed directed at Sissoko’s mom, who was seeing her son onstage in the US for only the second time in three decades.
Since their days serving as home base for the New York Arabic Orchestra, the French Institute has programmed some of the most intriguing music to emerge from the Francophone diaspora. Watch this space for upcoming artists and concert dates.