Sonic connection

Boston Globe, January 7, 2011

As their makers describe it, the ideal setting to hear the duets of cellist Vincent Segal and kora player Ballake Sissoko is the one where they recorded “Chamber Music,” their slow and sumptuous album: in Bamako, Mali, deep in the night, when the heat has dropped and silence envelops the city.

If that is not an option, however, a church makes a fine substitute. And by happy coincidence, Segal and Sissoko perform tonight at the First Church in Cambridge, where the stillness of the space, as Segal and Sissoko have found when playing churches in Europe, should match the temper of their music.

“Churches are magnificent,” says Sissoko on the phone from Mali. “A place that’s calm, where there’s no stress. A place for pure listening.”

On paper, what Sissoko – one of Mali’s great players of the kora, a 21-string lute with deep roots in centuries of griot tradition – and the eclectic French cellist Segal have concocted is a cross-cultural fusion of West African and European classical and folk musics. Their compositions are inspired by Malian praise songs and folk tunes from places like Greece and Brittany.

To hear “Chamber Music,” though, is much more to step aside from the usual world-music inventory of ingredients and styles and into a quiet space where origins are relevant but secondary to connection and presence in the moment.

Although a smattering of guests show up on the album, their presence is subtle and fleeting, only emphasizing how this is pure duo music. There is no percussion; Segal and Sissoko glide ahead and behind each other, at times the kora supplying the melodic lines and the cello the rhythm and ornamentation, at times vice versa. The silences are full of meaning. There are no overdubs or effects.

Even the idea of matching kora and cello, which might sound exotic, is less important to Sissoko and Segal than what they can do with the encounter. For one thing, Segal says on the phone from Paris, the instrument combination is not new.

“I know of some cellists in Paris in the 1980s who played with the kora,” Segal says, adding that French jazz bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel played kora alongside the cello in Steve Lacy’s group. In Paris, where Malian musicians abound, mixes like this happen.

The difference with “Chamber Music” is the liberating formlessness, and the intimacy that an acoustic duo requires.

“The cellist doesn’t always understand what the kora is doing, and vice versa,” Segal says. “But we have interplay in the tradition of classical chamber music.”

Kora and cello are a good match, both musicians say. “At the acoustic and instrumental level, the kora is closer to a baroque-era cello, not the bigger strength of later cellos,” Segal says. “But it’s very easy to play together.” For his part, Sissoko says the cello, when played pizzicato, reminds him of the bolon, a lower-register Malian instrument.

This collaboration has brewed over several years, beginning when Sissoko, who had become intrigued by the cello after a string music festival in Greece, heard Segal play in France in another eclectic duet, the Bumcello project with percussionist Cyril Atef.

Segal, who was classically trained and once played with the Opera de Lyon but has also toured with the likes of Chuck Brown and the P-Funk All-Stars, was aware of Sissoko’s music, and the two men found an immediate affinity.

“It turned out that he had paid close attention to my albums and knew my music really well,” Sissoko says. “So each time I’d go through Paris we would spend some time together and develop the possibilities.”

Eventually opportunities to perform arose, including a string festival in Libreville, Gabon. When it came time to record, Sissoko insisted they make the album in Mali.

“It was important to Ballake,” Segal says. “At first it didn’t matter that much to me, but when we got to Bamako, it’s true, the lifestyle there, the night is much more calm.”

“There was this natural sonority,” Sissoko says. “We could play until 4 in the morning, in the darkness. And there was the aspect of discovery: A lot of people in Mali know about the double bass but the cello is not so known.”

It was significant to record an album in Mali that breaks the mold of typical world-music projects, both men say. But they see this not so much as path-breaking as a sign of the times in a world where borders matter less and less.

In that, Segal sees yet another subtle connection with the earlier time when his own instrument was born.

“In the Renaissance era, musicians would travel all over Europe,” he says. “Now, people are traveling all over the world and coming together in families that are defined not by nationality or origin, but by sounds and sensibilities.”