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Tears for a broken kora: African musicians mistreated by US Customs

After a successful two-week American tour with his group 3MA, renowned Malian musician Ballaké Sissoko was returning home. Following his final gig in New York, Sissoko boarded an Air France flight to Paris while his custom-made “kora,” a West African string instrument, was tucked away in the plane’s cargo. When Sissoko arrived on February 4, he opened the kora case to find his instrument completely dismantled and destroyed.

Sissoko visited Carleton in the fall of 2015 with Kassé Mady Diabaté at the invitation of French and Francophone Studies Professor Chérif Keita. Keita invites a number of African musicians to Carleton every year to perform African music on non-Western instruments. However, Keita has noticed a disturbing trend in U.S. Customrs’ treatment of African musicians over the years.
“It’s a disturbing trend. African artists from many countries have been faced with the same situation: extreme vetting, which the Trump administration came with. All of a sudden, the U.S. customs are requiring that artists from Mali list all their gigs from the past 15 years? Many of these artists have never been to school or had an agent. Clearly rules like this are meant to block them,” Keita explained. “Requiring all these things makes it impossible for these artists to come tour the U.S.”

Sissoko is an internationally recognized musician with no criminal record who has toured and performed in the U.S. a number of times. He was part of an NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2011, and has released a number of highly acclaimed collaborative albums and records with Grammy award winning artists such as Taj Mahal and Vincent Ségal. Yet, Sissoko, and other African artists often face brusque treatment when traveling in and out of the U.S. Keita and others who work to bring African artists to the United States have for years lamented the lack of professionalism with which African artists are treated with when compared to their European counterparts.

“Now a musician has to prove that he or she has no criminal intent? As if the burden of the proof is on them to prove that they don’t have any criminal intent by coming to the U.S. to perform? So why do you doubt their motivation, their intent for coming to just work professionally? And that’s what we want to see happen; that they are treated as professionals just like musicians coming from anywhere in the world,” said Keita.

The destruction of Sissoko’s kora is not only a devastating loss of his livelihood, but also a symbolic loss for Mali. Since 2012, a brand of Islamic extremists have threatened the tradition of music and musicians in Northern Mali.

“These people came to Northern Mali and started spreading a brand of Islam that they said is not compatible with the tradition of music. So they started publicly breaking musicians’ instruments and threatening their lives,” explained Keita. “Many of these musicians were deprived not only of their lifestyle, but their ways, the means of their livelihood.”

And yet, Sissoko’s instrument was destroyed not by the extremists taking hold in Mali, but by United States Customs, where Sissoko hoped to perform freely, absent from the threats faced in his own country.

In a public letter, University of London Professor and Radio Presenter, Lucy Durán wrote, “And yet, ironically, it is the USA Customs that have in their own way managed to do this. Would they have dared to do such a thing to a white musician playing a classical instrument? What does this tell us about the attitude of the Trump administration towards African musicians? This is an unprovoked and sad act of aggression, a reflection of the kind of cultural ignorance and racism that is taking over in so many parts of the world and that endangers the best of musicians from Africa and elsewhere.”

TSA relased an offocial statement that “after a thorough review of the claim, it was determined that TSA did not open the instrument case,” yet Sissoko claims he found a TSA note in his kora case saying that the case had been opened and possibly searched. More broadly, TSA has denied any wrongdoing in regards to African musicians and their instruments.

“The TSA denies this. But would a musician do this to their own instrument? The instrument is their profession, their livelihood. This is not necessarily a position against TSA as an institution. But there needs to be accountability for this kind of thing within TSA. They still have the responsibility of finding out who did this,” said Keita.

Keita along with other African music educators in the United States feel heightened responsibility to these musicians who they often invite to perform in the US. The disturbing trends in the treatment of these musicians raises the question of taking new precautions in flying with non-Western instruments.

“I feel a very big responsibility. I work with many agencies and managers to facilitate the movement of these musicians around the country. Law offices working on visas sometimes contact me to write a letter. I feel that these people are my allies. It’s because we’re all doing the same thing teaching about Africa’s humanity and Africa. It’s teaching Africa’s humanism to the outside world,” said Keita. “It’s part of my duty as an African who lives in this country, who teaches in this country. You know, it’s my role as a bridge.”

Over the past few years, Keita has written a number of letters to African embassies and cultural ambassadors in order to get visas approved for African artists to perform in the United States. Keita has also recently written a letter regarding the destruction of Sissoko’s kora.

“This is exactly the argumentation I put in my letter to the embassy. How does that look nice when those two things, in Mali and in the US, are put next to each other? It’s horrible. It sends a bad message. If musicians hear these stories, how can they board a plane with peace of mind when they’re not sure that the instrument will be intact when they get to their destination?”

The kora is an instrument made out of half of a calabash gourd, with 21 strings and a free standing bridge. Kora music is an essential part of oral tradition in many Western African cultures and is widely celebrated in a number of West African nations, including Mali. For a fairly conspicuous instrument, it seems surprising then that a TSA agent would need to take the kora apart entirely to ensure its harmlessness.

“Looking at the kora, now you can see everything in there. You can see everything. This instrument has nothing to hide. What would you need to take it apart for? There could be many motivations for why this is happening. But the end result is that it’s not pretty,” said Keita.
Sissoko’s kora was tailor-made to his dimensions, and is impossible to replace. They aren’t available in shops. The gravity of this destruction has spurred an outcry in the international community.

“The global response has been very sympathetic,” said Keita. “It is having a very big impact. So I hope that this is a warning to somebody and not to just monkey around and play around with people’s lives, because that’s what this incident is.”

Sissoko is in the process of commissioning a new kora. But the damage done to the reputation of the United States as welcoming to African musicians has already been done. Keita asserts that despite the possible risks, he wants to continue to invite African musicians to perform at Carleton, in the safest ways possible for both them and their instruments.

Keita said, “So many musicians ask me when are you going to bring us back again to Carleton? Because this is an environment with a thirst for education, a thirst for knowledge of the world. We place the artist at the heart of that.”

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