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December 12, 2018

The Expressive Silence of World Music

by Michael Montgomery

Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Ségal

Time and again at the Mondavi Center, I have been struck by the ability of musicians from around the world to connect and communicate with their American audience. At the same time, I have seen that part of the magic of their performances is not understanding everything they say or do.

Like much of what I’ve written on this blog, this involves something of a paradox: in world music, it is a song’s notes and melodies (music’s “universal language,” so to speak) that we immediately relate to, but it is the less familiar particularities—where the song originated, the language in which it is sung, the historical context it evokes, etc.—that we learn from.

Take, for instance, Ballaké Sissoko, a kora player from Mali. (The kora is a tall, stringed instrument with a gourd for its body.) When Sissoko performed in the Vanderhoef theatre in October 2017, he was joined by French cellist Vincent Ségal. Ségal did most of the talking, for the simple reason that he, unlike Sissoko, spoke fluent English. In the one instance when Sissoko did address his audience, he spoke in French, and Ségal translated. Without recalling precisely what was said—I believe Sissoko thanked us for giving him a chance to play—I remember how touching it was to see the relationship between these two men: Sissoko expressing himself earnestly in French, Ségal unselfconsciously translating.

The entire interaction took less than a minute, but left a lasting impression. For the rest of the performance, Sissoko’s silence was weighted with meaning. Watching his fingers play lightly over the kora’s harp-like strings, I became acutely aware that, speech being off limits, he was sharing his culture with us the only way he could: through his music. Consequently, I appreciated it all the more.

Inevitably, my appreciation of Sissoko’s music begs the question of Western colonialism; and here, too, world music provides an opportunity to broaden our awareness. Like much of West Africa, Mali was under French rule until 1960. This is why Sissoko and Ségal share a common language in the first place. It is also why I view their collaboration as a positive step toward lightening colonialism’s burdensome legacy. Some people might disagree, and argue that Malian musicians shouldn’t need French collaborators to receive international attention; clearly, those people haven’t listened to Sissoko and Ségal’s music.

Free from feelings of European patronization or colonial animus, their work together (see this video for an example) is a peaceful blending of European and African musical traditions, in which the two musicians and their instruments interact as equals. On their 2015 album Musique du Nuit, mostly recorded live on Sissoko’s rooftop in Bamako, Mali’s capital, this sense of serene collaboration is enhanced by sounds of the nighttime city around them: the murmur of traffic, the chirping of crickets, the bleating of goats. Just as Sissoko’s French-English language barrier only became apparent in concert when a song stopped and he remained silent, one only notices the goats on the album when the music falls quiet. Both are moments of vivid cross-cultural communication, made all the more so because they occur in the silences.

Hearing a goat on a recording takes me instantly out of my middle class American routine. It reminds me that however much I may enjoy Sissoko’s music, I cannot enjoy it in a vacuum; his kora playing is inherently and unashamedly African. Similarly, seeing Sissoko silent on stage, and then hearing Ségal translate his words from French into English, was a reminder of how far removed I am—linguistically, geographically, historically—from Sissoko’s African milieu, and of how much closer to it a Frenchman like Ségal is.

If, instead of French, Sissoko had spoken in Bambara, or Malinke, or any other of Mali’s over 50 indigenous languages, the effect would have been the same. This is because, at their most fundamental level, what Sissoko’s brief remarks did was lay bare not only his own language limitation, but ours as an audience: most of us wouldn’t have understood him either way. By punctuating his otherwise pervasive silence, Sissoko’s comments made strikingly apparent the fundamental lesson we can learn from world music. No matter what languages we speak, we will never speak them all—and that’s when we let music do the talking.


Author Bio

Michael is a third-year student at UC Davis. He is majoring in Marine and Coastal Science, with planned minors in History and Professional Writing, and is considering a career in science writing. This is his second year on the Mondavi Center’s Arts and Lectures Committee.