• 23-27 OCT 2024
  • Manchester, UK

Ballaké Sissoko, Kora Tales.

Interview with Lucy Durán and Laurent Benhamou

Ballaké Sissoko, Kora Tales by Lucy Durán

Music academic, producer and journalist Lucy Durán and filmmaker (and long-time WOMEX collaborator) Laurent Benhamou unravel the story of the kora, one of Africa’s most iconic instruments, courtesy of one of its most prominent champions, the award-winning musician Ballaké Sissoko. The contemplative feel of the film is conjured by the scenic aerial shots of the landscape, a journey through history, tradition, family, and a love of music. Balancing between personal - encountering Ballaké’s home and family, to illuminating via the history of the kora and the region at large. The film was recently awarded at the Berlin Indie Film Festival.

Directors' pictures

Lucy Durán and Laurent Benhamou

You both come from different disciplines - Lucy, you are an academic, specialising in the music of Mali and Cuba. Laurent, you are a filmmaker, tightly connected to the world of music. What was the genesis and motivation behind your mutual project, the film about Ballaké Sissoko?

Lucy Durán: I had always dreamt of making a good film about the kora. There is so much mis-information about the instrument going around. The kora is such a beautiful instrument and it has been my passion now for nearly half a century!!!

Yes I am an academic, and I have tried to bring some academic rigour into the story-telling in our film Ballaké Sissoko, Kora Tales. That is: making sure that historical facts are accurate and properly sourced, based on my longtime research on the kora. Also my in-depth research has certainly informed our choices of where to film, and what kinds of questions to ask, what extra commentary would be needed to make the story more comprehensible.

Working with Laurent on this was amazing because he understood perfectly the need to be rigorous and the need to explain where we were (with maps etc) and why. He was very creative in how he dealt with all of these issues through the film editing.

But I need to point out that I am not just an academic. I also produce albums, including the first international releases of Toumani Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko, and I make films (eg my series Growing into Music in Mali which was funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and won a significant award. The films are about how young children in griot families learn music. Watch them here www.growingintomusic.co.uk
I have been a consultant on several films for the BBC about music in Mali. And I was a radio presenter on BBC Radio 3 for 27 years, with my own programme from 2000-13, World Routes, travelling the world. I made quite a lot of programmes about music in Mali.

Apart from my long involvement in the music of the kora and the world of Mande music, and having known Ballaké for such a long time and watched his musical growth, the specific genesis of our film was when Ballaké received a laureate from the Aga Khan Music Awards, for “Enduring Contributions to Music” (I had nominated him and was delighted when he was awarded). The prize was a modest sum, partly just for Ballaké’s personal use but also an extra, small sum to finance a more enduring project that would showcase his work, so I suggested a film documentary. Ballaké’s management team, the wonderful Mad Minute Music, found a producer, Oleo Films, who raised more money to make the film possible.

Laurent Benhamou: It was Corinne Serres, Ballaké's producer and director at Mad Minute Music, who first suggested that I make this film with Lucy given my experience as a director and my past in the world music world. I have known Corinne since the early 2000s when I worked for the Mondomix magazine, where I made my first creations. It was also at this time that I had the opportunity to briefly meet Lucy during WOMEX in Seville in 2003.
This exciting project was an opportunity for me to learn more about Ballaké and Mande (Mandinka, Malinké) culture. The prospect of nourishing my curiosity is always very motivating and exciting when I start a new project. Even more so when it comes to being accompanied by a person like Lucy who knows so much about the subject.

Ballaké Sissoko, Kora Tales

The film itself also interweaves these two elements: a more educational aspect (where we learn about Ballaké's instrument of choice - kora, and its fascinating history), and the evocative visual storytelling and Ballaké's personal story. Can you talk about the structuring of the film and how you approached your collaboration in practice?

L.D.: Laurent and I liaised a lot online. With phone calls and zooms. Each one of us asked questions- why this, why not that, how to deal with this issue etc. It was a very collaborative journey, but ultimately it was Laurent and his editor who put the images together into a storyline, and they did that brilliantly. We had enormous support from the start from Ballaké’s management, Mad Minute Music. It’s really thanks to their total belief in Ballaké, their warm, trusting and enduring relationship with him, that Ballaké’s international career took off.

L.B.: Telling this story was a big challenge. With Lucy, we always tried to keep in mind that we had to be precise in what we were going to say during the writing of the film. We could not afford to be approximate about the facts. But it was also essential not to make a film for specialists. This film had to be accessible to as many people as possible and therefore quite educational.
One of the challenges was also to remember that Ballaké is a musician with a very long and recognized career, respected for his music all over the world.

Ballaké Sissoko, Kora Tales by Lucy Durán

Ballaké himself lets us into his private world - and introduces his family and his home. Can you talk about on-location filming, and the interviews made?

L.D.: My very first trip to Mali was in 1986 and I went there by train from Gambia. We were going to visit the great kora player, Sidiki Diabaté, father of Toumani. (I was with two other people: Amadu Bansang Jobarteh who was Sidiki’s uncle, and my friend the British writer James Fox who financed the trip by writing about it for a magazine.) We arrived at Bamako at 2 am after a long and arduous journey - the train was a merchandise, not a passenger train so there was nowhere to sit and no toilets, and it was very slow. When we arrived at Sidiki’s house in Bamako at 2 am after several days on the road, there was no room for me at Sidiki’s. So the Diabate family sent me next door to Ballaké’s. His dad had been Sidiki’s great friend. They had both migrated together to Mali from the Gambia...

Ballaké was then 19 years old. He kindly gave up his room for me. It had been his dad’s room. I was very honoured by this gesture of hospitality. That was the beginning of our long and trusting relationship.

I speak Mandinka (a language of Gambia and southern Senegal) which I had learnt while studying kora in Gambia. So I could communicate easily with Ballaké’s mum and stepmother/ aunt. In my many subsequent visits to Mali, I always dropped in on the Sissoko family. When we went in January 2022 to film Ballaké at home in Bamako, they of course remembered me perfectly and we could chat in Mandinka. So the door was open. We were all comfortable. The rooftop performance was extraordinary.

Laurent can talk about on-location filming. Beautiful, but always challenging. We had an amazing team. The sound person, Marie-Clothilde Chéry, was crucial. Moustapha Diallo from Mali did the drone shots which are such a powerful part of the film. Laurent was camera no 1 and shot beautifully with a wonderful eye.

L.B.: With Lucy as ambassador, it was not difficult for the small team to be warmly welcomed by Ballaké who made himself available throughout the journey. I must also say that the scheduling of the shooting, developed in advance by Marcello Bueno, greatly facilitated our task. This comfort allowed us to concentrate exclusively on filming and these technical constraints. The magic of this kind of film, far from our respective bases, is that everyone gets along well and goes in the same direction from the first seconds.

L.D.: I can warmly endorse Laurent’s comments. The film crew were amazing, we all got on so well, and the impeccable organisation of the film shoot by Marcelo Bueno played a really significant role in that. Everyone was invested in getting the best results possible out of a relatively small budget.


Ballaké Sissoko, Kora Tales by Marcelo Bueno

Lucy, you have been researching the music of Mali for a long time. Was there something that surprised you or changed your views during the filming?

L.D.: Of course, whenever you are making a film and trying to go in-depth into a representation of musical culture, you learn lots of new things. The visit to Sanementereng was magical. Just to watch the emotion of Ballaké in that place, overlooking the Atlantic, was so poignant. I wept.

Laurent - how did you approach the cinematography and the narrative of the film?

L.B.: As I said, one of the main challenges of the film was to be able to take the viewer with us on a fairly extraordinary journey, keeping in mind that we had to transmit knowledge. It is therefore on the basis of the information and historical facts gathered by Lucy that we tried to unfold a narrative thread, which, as the voice-over says in the introduction, would allow us to go back to the origins of the kora while telling the story. We were lucky with the geographical locations, full of green landscapes and water, which was very inspiring and helpful for the story, conjuring a dreamlike journey. Telling the story down to the “source” was an essential narrative support for us. And speaking of the voice-over, how lucky we were to be able to entrust it to Oxmo Puccino, a rapper, lyricist and writer recognized for his talent, who was born in Mali, just like Ballaké.

What were some of the challenges that you faced during the making of this film?

L.D.: I would say that the main challenge we encountered was because we were filming during strict COVID-related travel restrictions in January 2022. This meant that we had to do lots of COVID tests every time we crossed a border. It took up precious time and of course money too. The time that would have been better spent on filming. But, no choice.

L.B.: It's true, the pandemic forced us into certain situations that we couldn't avoid, but we didn't want to show it in the images so as not to mark the film and associate it with particular news. Because this film has a certain timelessness. We could almost have shot it 10 years ago, or in 10 years, the timing of the shoot wasn't important. What mattered was the story of Ballaké and that of the kora.