FILE UNDER: WORLD MUSIC
SIX DEGREES RECORDS
RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 4, 2015
French cellist Vincent Segal and Malian kora virtuoso Ballaké Sissoko sat down together, in the wonderful, peculiar hours when all life seemed suspended. And they played together, in quiet dialogue. At night, they felt liberated.
“Night is a special time in Mali,” Segal explains. “It’s a little less hot, and everyone’s asleep apart from the night owls like us. The city’s not as noisy, music mixes with rumor, and there’s something redeeming about simply sitting outside and playing. That’s what we tried to capture here, that freedom the night can bring.”
They channel it via the cello and the kora, the sparkling sound of the heart and the thoughtfulness of the soul, evoking night’s mysterious, exquisite span on Musique de Nuit (Six Degrees Records; release: September 4, 2015), the successor to their rapturously acclaimed first album together, Chamber Music. And it’s a very aptly-titled disc.
Six years have passed since the pair recorded Chamber Music over three days in Bamako, Mali. In that time the world has changed beyond measure. Sissoko’s homeland came under siege from fundamentalist troops for many months, while in Paris the Charlie Hebdo killings proved that violence can spring up anywhere. And that sense of tension, of change flows through Musique de Nuit.
“What all that gave us was the thirst to play, to sit up there on the roof and explore all the feelings that came out,” Segal says. “We’d never stopped playing together after that first album, and we’ve done plenty of concerts and tours. We know each other well now and we can be free. The music’s less serene than Chamber Music, but so is the world.”
Recorded outside, the ambient noises of Bamako—the call of a bird or the voices just at the edge of hearing—are very much a part of the disc. They bring a sense of intimacy and closeness, of listening in on a private dialogue. “The darkness is very conducive to conversations,” Segal agrees. “It’s right for interactions that aren’t arranged, that just ebb and flow. And that’s what this does. There were no overdubs. What you hear is what the two of us played.”
There are indeed no outside musicians on the record beyond the timeless voice of Babani Koné on “Diabaro.” The simplicity blossoms into subtle richness. Every other sound comes from the kora or the cello, even though other instruments seem to peer in and add color and shade. “We wanted to evoke the sound of phantom instruments,” Segal laughs. “So we made the kora and cello sound like a flute, a ngoni, a takamba. But everything there is us.”
Both musicians bring years of experience to their work together. Segal trained as a classical cellist but he’s worked with artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Cesaria Evora, and Brazil’s Carlinhos Brown, as well as being an ongoing member of downtempo electronica group Bumcello. Born into a griot family, Sissoko was destined for music from birth. After studying the tradition, he played in a duo with Toumani Diabaté before expanding his horizons to record and perform with musicians from all over the globe, becoming a regular part of the cast used by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi.
Every note on Musique du Nuit comes from what they’ve both learned, and what they continue to learn, as two artists interacting. “This isn’t Africa meets the West,” Segal insists. “What ‘West’ would we be talking about, anyway? Since my teens I’ve played with musicians from all over, and Ballaké has performed with people from China, Iran, America, and more. Like everyone else, our influences come from all over. Artists have always soaked up what they hear and brought it out in their music, and we’re no different. Music isn’t something from one nation, even when we think it is. Think of the Bach Cello Suites; they have French minuets and gavottes, as well as English jigs. There’s no need for national ownership of music. There is simply the freedom to have fun.”
There’s absolute delight in the playing, the entire spectrum of the night in the music, from the joy and hope that arrives with nightfall through to the quiet, introspective hours before dawn. “Samba Tomora” is a gleeful, graceful dance, while “Balazando” takes the duo into wilder territory that draws on modern jazz and the moods of electronica in parts before the breathless delicacy of the title track brings a soft, thoughtful close to the disc.
It’s music built on empathy, the bond that’s built from hours and months of playing together. Perhaps even more, it’s founded on the trust of being able to push each other, to listen as much as play. “Chamber Music is where it started,” Segal agrees. “But all we’ve done together since then has reinforced our collaboration. And this is where we are now, the two of us together.”