When Malian master musician Ballaké Sissoko opened the case to his kora, a traditional and delicate 21-string instrument, after an early February flight from New York to Paris, he was devastated by what he found.
“Ballaké Sissoko has just had his cherished, custom-made kora completely destroyed by USA Customs, without any justification,” Lucy Durán, an ethnomusicologist, wrote in a statement on Sissoko’s behalf on his official Facebook account. “In Mali, the jihadists threaten to destroy musical instruments, cut the tongues out of singers, and to silence Mali’s great musical heritage. And yet, ironically, it is the USA Customs that have in their own way managed to do this.”
What happened to Sissoko’s kora is uncertain. (The Transportation Security Administration said in a statement, “It is most unfortunate that Mr. Sissoko’s instrument was damaged in transport, however... TSA did not open the instrument case because it did not trigger an alarm when it was screened for possible explosives”).
Regardless of how it happened, it is the latest in a long line of incidents in which irreplaceable instruments have been damaged in the course of air travel and TSA inspections. As summer festival season ramps up, many musicians will face the travails of travel to perform: visa issues, lost bags and the challenges of getting their gear across borders. Some countries, like the U.K., are stricter than others when it comes to complicated baggage, said Jess Lewis, an independent tour manager for acts like Run the Jewels, Purity Ring, Iron & Wine and Calexico, but fundamentally, you’re at the mercy of customs and the airlines.
“You can have a bad experience whether flying with it in your hand or freighting. I’ve seen a forklift go right through a guitar case before,” Lewis said. “Airlines should be as explicit as possible on their websites about their policies. But if you’re not a platinum member, don’t expect any special treatment.”
Stories like Sissoko’s are a nightmare scenario for musicians, especially those who use rare or period-specific traditional instruments. It happens with some frequency — in 2015, renowned Chinese pipa player Wu Man‘s instrument was demolished on a US Airways flight (the airline eventually replaced it after a public outcry). In 2018, Myrna Herzog of the Phoenix Early Music Society discovered that her rare 17th century viola da gamba had been damaged on an Alitalia flight (The airline reimbursed her for repairs).
In 2014, Christopher Wilke, a lute player and University of Cincinnati music professor, had his $10,000 instrument destroyed on a Delta flight. Wilke was fastidious with his instrument, even placing a humidifier inside the case to prevent drying. Delta paid for repairs, but he put the blame for these incidents squarely on careless policies from both TSA and the airline.
“The apathy of the TSA and airlines to protect rare instruments from harm greatly hinders the opportunity for musicians and audiences to connect,” Wilke said. The experience shook him so deeply that, despite recent collaborations with rock and hip-hop artists and offers for national tour dates, he won’t baggage-check his instrument and can’t afford the cost of an extra airplane seat, and therefore doesn’t perform beyond a day’s driving distance from Cincinnati.
“Sadly, until workers in the TSA and airline industry are held personally responsible for negligence or malice, incidents like this are going to keep happening,” he added. As musicians, “we build bridges. It’s ironic that a travel industry would be the one to block those bridges.”
There are, of course, best practices for touring musicians to prevent dings and withering scrutiny from TSA. Lewis said she’s never experienced anything destructive to artists in getting gear over borders, but it still can be a humbling or tense experience.
“Discovering the power of customs is a scary thing. If they want to, they can just hold you there,” she said. A document called a carnet — essentially a global passport for baggage — can help smooth the process, and keeping a detailed manifest of all your gear and extra zip-ties can help inspections move more quickly while keeping cases secure.
Sissoko, obviously well-acquainted with his instrument’s fragility, would have known to take every precaution. But no traveler can account for cultural ignorance or carelessness during the inspection process. That dynamic is compounded when dealing with unfamiliar gear like a kora and may raise the specter of racism.
“It’s connected with a not-so-pleasant image of the U.S. today, and a lot of racist and discriminatory statements made by people in power,” said Cheryl Keyes, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA who studies traditional African music. “Maybe whoever looked at it thought it was something else. But it’s connected with Africa, and once you assault something that’s part of a tradition, with so much meaning culturally, it comes off as racist.”
But musicians aren’t totally powerless. While the TSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are government agencies that, in the Trump era, are often feared as xenophobic, airlines sometimes respond to commercial pressure.
A decade ago, Canadian singer-songwriter Dave Carroll’s beloved guitar was damaged in transit on a United flight. He wrote a song, “United Breaks Guitars,” about it with his band Sons of Maxwell, and it became one of YouTube’s first viral sensations.
“Music is an extension of how you feel and think and your instrument is your best friend. To lose that is awful,” Carroll said.
The song cost the airline dearly in reputation. Carroll said, “Ballaké is virtuoso, and no one would say I am,” yet he felt a familiar sting when he heard the story.
Carroll was one of the first musicians to use social media to lambast a careless airline, and he has since made a career as a consumer advocate in the music and travel industries. In 2012, after a decade of pressure from musicians, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, compelling airlines to allow musical instruments on a flight if they fit on the plane. The new regulations went into effect in 2015.
“You can’t deny [the song] had a negative impact on the brand when millions of people used it as a metaphor for bad service,” Carroll said. “Sometimes the conditions aren’t the greatest for people handling bags, but it’s sad that the traveling public bears the brunt of it. There was definitely a disrespect there.”
But for artists like Sissoko, the damage to his kora goes beyond the practical. You can buy another guitar or find a skilled lute repairwoman. What he can’t get back is the spiritual essence of his instrument, and that doesn’t fit so neatly on a complaint form.
“It’s not like you can go to a manufacturer and buy a kora,” Keyes said. “The artisan caste infuses it with protection designed specifically for you. Whoever made it may put the pieces back together, but if you lost a child, you can’t replace that child. Maybe the kora can be put on display to show what happens if you just assume people know the power of your music.”