Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Ségal review – a beautiful cross-border conversation

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

They begin as they plan to continue, with an exquisite, hypnotic late-night meditation. A gently rippling solo on the kora, the west African harp, gives way to collaboration with cello. Then the cello takes over, with the strings first plucked and then bowed, as the kora now eases back to provide accompaniment to the melody. This is the title track from Chamber Music, the debut album from Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Ségal, released in 2009 at the start of what has proved to be one of the great African-European partnerships.

Seated next to each other on stage they may look an unlikely couple, but they have a similar history. Sissoko, who wears a blue robe, is a griot, and master of the 21-stringed kora. Like his celebrated and equally adventurous cousin Toumani Diabaté he has learned the ancient Mandinka styles, the classical music of west Africa, but is keen to experiment. His last solo album Djourou included a collaboration with a French rapper, and a jaunty reworking of Berlioz. Ségal, who wears a dark suit, is a classically trained cellist who became a celebrity in France improvising with a punk-influenced drummer in Bumcello.

Related: Ballaké Sissoko: picking up the pieces after US customs broke his kora

Together, they play almost as if by intuition, as kora and cello switch between providing lead and rhythmic backing, constantly changing direction within the same piece. The music is low-key but quietly thrilling, with improvisation that involves virtuoso kora solos, or passages where the cello is strummed like a guitar. Music from their two albums is mixed with tracks from Sissoko’s solo albums, with Ségal switching to castanets as Sissoko launches into his reworking of Asa Branca by the Brazilian accordion player Luiz Gonzaga.

For the encore, they are joined by the remarkable British-based South African cellist Abel Selaocoe, who won a deserved standing ovation for his opening solo set, which involved anything from delicate or growled singing worthy of mbaqanga star Mahlathini to a Bach cello suite prelude, with the audience providing drone effects. Joining Sissoko and Ségal for Mako Mady he adds subtle vocals and cello textures – they should record together as a trio.

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