'Kora Revolution' (1999)
By Kaouding Cissoko in 1999Updated Dec 2019
The kora is the most popular instrument of the griots - the musical caste of west Africa's Wolof and Fula peoples. A cross between a harp and a lute, with 21 to 25 strings, its striking appearance -…
The kora is the most popular instrument of the griots - the musical caste of west Africa's Wolof and Fula peoples. A cross between a harp and a lute, with 21 to 25 strings, its striking appearance - a gourd-shaped base, which players rest in their groin, and a long, thin, bridged neck - and its beautiful ringing sound have made it west Africa's most revered instrument. Kaouding Cissokho, who has died of tuberculosis aged 38, was internationally acclaimed as one of its masters.
Kaouding was born in Tamba Counda, eastern Senegal, the son of the famous oral historian and kora player Banna Cissokho. Being born into a griot family would normally have meant he was studying kora at the feet of his father. Yet his parents sent him to a vocational school to be a carpenter.
But Kaouding's desire to play the instrument led him, with his brother's kora, to take lessons from his uncle Cheick Diabate, a fine guitarist. As a result he turned into a more experimental musician than the tradition-bound players in his family - and, when touring the world, he added double bass pickups to make his kora's ringing tone heard above the electric guitars and keyboards.
Kaouding began by accompanying griot praise singers - reciting the histories and accomplishments of their employers - with his fluid finger work creating exquisite melodies. He came into his own when he teamed up with Baaba Maal, who is ranked second in terms of international following only to Youssou N'Dour among Senegalese singers.
Soon Kaouding was playing in Europe, the United States and Asia. His energy and joy fitted well into Maal's show, while his desire to experiment - he is remembered as a funky, boundary-crossing player by aficionados - found him playing on recordings with Senegalese rappers Positive Black Soul, the late Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and on Jamaican jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin's acclaimed In Search Of The Lost Riddim (1998). On this last, his light melodic touch provided the perfect accompaniment to Ranglin's dazzling lead guitar.
Kaouding was a co-founder of Afro-Celt Sound System, formed in 1996 at a Real World recording week. This musical collaboration, at Peter Gabriel's Real World label's Wiltshire studios, follows each summer's Womad festival. Mixing west African and Celtic instrumentation over electronic dance rhythms suggested a mess in the making, but the result was Real World's bestselling album. The Afro-Celts became a summer festival fixture and, while Kaouding's commitment to Maal kept him from becoming an Afro-Celt fulltimer, he contributed much to their development.
In November 1998, Kaouding joined Maal in New York for the Red, Hot And Rhapsody George Gershwin tribute concerts and recording. The kora lines on Bess, You Is My Woman sparkle and shimmer. Maal's 2001 album Missing You (Mi Yeewnii) was hailed as a triumph, and a good deal of that glory must be shared with Kaouding and his exquisite kora rhythms and melodies. His solo album Kora Revolution was released in 1999.
Kaouding had been ill for a few weeks and, thinking he had been cursed, visited various witchdoctors. At Maal's urging, he finally sought hospital treatment - expensive in Senegal - where he was diagnosed. Kaouding was, as his tour manager observed, "one of the kindest and most generous people that you could meet".
He is survived by his second wife and three children.
· Kaouding Cissokho, musician, born November 2 1964; died July 18 2003.
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