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Music

‘I lost part of myself,’ Ballaké Sissoko says after alleging U.S. Customs broke his instrument

Ballake Sissoko
Malian musician Ballaké Sissoko claims U.S. Customs broke his kora this week as he traveled to France from New York.
(Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images)

The kora of renowned Malian musician Ballaké Sissoko was broken by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, the instrumentalist claims.

The West African musician was traveling to Paris from New York after a two-week U.S. tour with his group 3MA when the case containing his instrument was opened for inspection by the TSA, according to a statement published on Tuesday by Sissoko’s friend and SOAS University of London music professor Lucy Durán.

"[O]ne of Africa’s most outstanding performers, the exceptional kora player from Mali, Ballaké Sissoko has just had his cherished, custom-made kora completely destroyed by USA Customs, without any justification,” she wrote in a statement posted on Sissoko’s Facebook page. The note and a photo of the damaged kora also are being shared on Twitter.

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But in a statement to The Times on Thursday, TSA said it didn’t open the case: “It is most unfortunate that Mr. Sissoko’s instrument was damaged in transport, however, after a thorough review of the claim, it was determined that TSA did not open the instrument case because it did not trigger an alarm when it was screened for possible explosives.”

Sissoko said in an email that he’s had the kora for seven or eight years, and that the instruments can cost more than $5,000. It can take weeks to properly assemble the instrument and get its sound right, he added.

“Now I am like an orphan, I lost part of myself and need to wait several weeks to get a new one, I will have then to get used to it,” he said.

Durán, who has produced two albums featuring Sissoko, said the instrument was left in pieces. “The neck of the kora has been removed. The strings, bridge and entire, delicate and complex sound system of amplification have been taken apart,” she continued.

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“These kinds of custom-made koras are simply impossible to replace. They are certainly not available in shops.”

The TSA allegedly left a leaflet inside the case saying they had opened it for inspection.

But in its statement, TSA said millions of those inspection notices have been put in bags since the agency was established years ago.

“It is very easy for someone to get ahold of one of these inspection notices,” the statement said. “TSA also observed that the inspection notice in the photo appeared to be in poor condition with tape on it. TSA does not affix tape to its inspection notices. The notices are placed inside luggage that requires hand inspection. Anyone could have placed the notice inside the instrument case.”

Still, Sissoko thinks it has become harder for musicians to travel with their instruments because of too many “restrictions” and “suspicions,” adding that they’re “suffering from that every day.”

Images showing the 21-stringed, harp-lute instrument in pieces were posted on Sissoko’s Facebook fan page.

“I am really outraged by what happened,” Durán said in an email. “This will have a devastating impact on Ballaké in the middle of a tour.”

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Sissoko is scheduled to perform in France on Feb. 28. He hopes to get a new kora before then.


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