Ballaké Sissoko will perform on the kora, a 21-stringed harp.
Ballaké Sissoko will perform on the kora, a 21-stringed harp. (Courtesy of Ballaké Sissoko)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Ballaké Sissoko's eyes are closed. His hands move on the thin strings on the instrument that he plucks with pick-like fingernails. He is playing the kora, a 21-string bridge harp common to West African countries like Mali, where he was born.

The kora is a bulbous instrument with a large soundbox made out of a hollowed-out calabash, a gourd often used as a water container. The skin of the instrument is made out of cow hide, while its strings radiate out from a long wooden bridge.

As he plays, Sissoko's fingers move swiftly over the strings, improvising with a dancer's grace. It is a transcendently peaceful sound, and Berkshire listeners can tap into it on Sunday, when Sissoko performs a solo concert at Williams College as part of the Earnest Brown World Music Series.

Sissoko said that even when performing in front of an audience unfamiliar with the kora, music possesses a universal quality in its ability to move listeners no matter their backgrounds.

"In every concert, there are people that don't know about kora, but when I perform I can feel the audience," Sissoko said in an email translated from the French by his agent, Mel Puljic. "It's a face- to-face communication -- I like thinking that they come with everyday life stress, and they leave as if they had done a very long and intense travel without moving, amazed and peaceful."

The concert comes at a busy time for Sissoko. Having just released his latest album, "At Peace," he is ready to embark on a national tour with cellist Vincent Segal, with whom he collaborated on the album "Chamber Music."

His music offers an introduction to a culture and musical heritage many Williams students and members of the community may not have met first-hand.

Bringing Sissoko to Williams will give them a chance to, said W. Anthony Sheppard, chairman of the college's Department of Music.

"By not being able to hear music from Africa, Asia and Latin America, you cut yourself off from a whole world of music experience," Sheppard said.

Williams faculty shape the concert series to tie into specific courses. This concert relates directly to "Musics from Africa," a survey course being taught by Oyebade Dosunmu, a visiting professor of music at the college.

"From a historical sense, Sissoko helps to illustrate the transmission of music throughout cultures and time periods," Dosunmu said.

Sissoko's presence at Williams was serendipitous. Malian percussionist and singer Makane Kouyate was originally set to perform in Sissoko's slot, but he had to cancel due to immigration problems, Sheppard said. Luckily, Sissoko had already planned on performing in Rochester, N.Y., on Tuesday, and will come to the United States a few days earlier than expected to kick off his tour at Williams.

Sissoko's is a world of music deeply rooted in tradition. Sissoko hails from a long line of griots, Mali-Mende poet-historians, who use oral storytelling and music. Growing up around his father, Djélimady Sissoko, a kora virtuoso, Sissoko said he would learn by example, sitting by his father's side as he would play the kora.

For Sissoko, the cycle continues. He has a son and a daughter who is only a baby, who hear him play, and he taught his late sister's son how to play the instrument.

"My music communicates all that I feel, and anything one can tell with words, I can play it with my melody," Sissoko said. "Love, sadness, anything. Someone who feels depressed -- I can change his mood."

 

If you go ...

What: Kora musician Ballaté Sissoko to perform

When: Sunday at 3 p.m.

Where: Williams College, Williamstown

Admission: Free

Information: music.williams.edu