Why did I become a kora professional player?
When I was in my fifth year of medical school in Brussels, a friend asked me if I wanted to go to Burkina Faso for an internship.
He was a cool, passionate dude, as not fitting as me on the medical campus.
A “little bit special”, others would say about us.
I can’t say I was enjoing my time at the University, spending most of my time between books and lectures. I was never feeling respite, as if I had to perform all the time and regurgitate an enormous (and not very tasty) amount of data.
So I accepted that proposition to go abroad as a try for something else, and went there for two months.
It was my first internship, so I didn’t know what to expect…
This picture down there is that kid who doesn’t know much about anything, but has spent most of his time with his notebook learning Moré, the local language, and having a lot of fun practising it with these nurses.
I witnessed extreme poverty and the most rudimental health care, as this was on the countryside of Burkina Faso.
On the brighter side, I found living among the nurses being one of the best experience of my life at that time. The openness, generosity and humour these people were displaying was out of this world to me. Especially in that really harsh context…
Also, the couple who hosted us, a belgian doctor and her husband were doing a very inspiring work and were so welcoming I felt like home all the time.
There were two moments when something shifted inside of me.
The first one was when me and my fellow student were having a stroll at the market.
We saw a small decoration kora, and I fell instantly in love with it, without knowing anything about it.
The second one was during a night in a remote village health centre, where the nurse in charge played a tape of Oumou Sangaré (you can actually play it while reading).
That nurse was working in this village alone, in his tiny house without electricity, being paid just enough to survive.
I followed him for a few days.
That man was helping women giving birth with a petrol lamp.
You read it right, alone in the middle of nowhere.
He could ask for a jeep if the case was too difficult, but that would take hours.
I went on one of these evacuation one day, but the child died on the way.
He was also giving treatments to people in remote villages, using his small motorcycle.
We crossed a few small rivers to reach the places we had to visit.
All that to give you the context.
It’s a pretty harsh life to say the least, and there is not much to do about it but to face reality…
So when he played that song, it felt like air was suddenly coming back, as if water was flowing down on a desert and giving birth to flowers.
It struck me deeply.
He then talked about Mali where this singer is from, and told me they do the best music in the world.
I went back to Belgium, and took all the albums of Malian music I could find.
One compilation pierced my soul.
There were two songs in particular that I loved.
Little did I know at that time that this album would become so important in my life…
I played these two songs a million times.
I wasn’t still enjoying my time now being an intern in hospitals in Belgium. Looking back, I had kept a deep down depression inside of me, feeling numb but performing my tasks as well as I could.
So these sounds of the kora, my future instrument, were so soothing, contrasting a lot with my emotional state.
I fell in love with the feeling.
I wanted more…
So I organized a student exchange with Mali.
This is my buddy Modibo Sangaré, sporting a belgian national team t shirt (he is a football fan), while he was studying in Belgium.
He was the most devoted and briliant medical student I have ever met.
He is now a very reputed Neurologist, trained in the USA…
So I went to Ségou (Mali) in my sixth year of University, and it was hard to witness poverty and hardships in the hospital. I could hardly handle it actually. It was too much.
This is me with the family I was staying with, next to Adama Tangara with the blue fabric, who was once Mayor of Ségou.
People gave me his name, and some friends still know me as “Adama” from that time.
There was not a single kora player in Ségou, but before leaving, I bought a kora from DialyMady Sissoko (I didn’t know at that time he would become my teacher).
He can be seen with the white hair on the right of the stage in this video.
I spent my last year as a student following family doctors during the day, spending my weekends and evenings with these guys on the picture beneath.
From left to right, Bao Cissokho, Sadio Cissokho and Hadiouma.
My brother happened to meet Sadio Cissokho (a Senegalese kora player) in Brussels while I was gone, and took his number.
So it started…
I called him, I went to his place, and the moment he touched the kora, I knew I would become a kora player.
The memory of that moment is still vivid…
He encouraged me to pursue my training, saying I had talent as I was learning very fast.
I graduated from University.
Just after graduating, I took a week outside of my city in a monastery to make a decision about my life.
So I went, and decided I would become the best kora player possible, no matter what! I would spend a year or more in Mali to learn and see how far I could go.
I lived in Mali in a family, I was accepted as a kora student giving kola nut to Toumani Diabaté.
I was playing 8 to 10 hours a day, spending 2 hours with my teacher DialyMady Sissoko, also playing with his band after 6 months of practising, and joining a reggae band with which we recorded an EP and performed a few times, called Avia.
I really thought that one year of super intense practice would be enough for me to become a full fledged professional musician in Belgium. Little did I know what was expecting me…
When I came back to Belgium, I faced only rejection and closed doors. A year after, I decided to go back to Mali
It was a hard time, as I wasn’t progressing a lot. I also suffered from typhoid and malaria at the same time while staying in Toumani Diabaté’s house…One day as I was very sick, I started having hallucinations, seeing dark and strange winged beings taking me to the other side…I gave a call to my friend Modibo Sangaré who saved my life by taking me to the hospital and giving me the right treatment.
I decided to go back to Belgium.
Before that, I had a talk with Toumani Diabaté, who told me he overheard me in my room while I was practising an Amélie Poulain’s song…
He overheard me while taking tea outside my door, and said that it was a briliant idea to practice european tunes on the kora.
He then told me: “Go home, use africain tradition as a foundation and your culture as a way to grow”.
Which I did…
But at that time, I didn’t have a big interest for european music.
Another call inside of me had been made while watching Bollywood videoclips on sundays while in Bamako on my first stay.
I wrote to more than hundred music teachers in India to explain who I was and what I was looking for.
I only had two ot three serious replies.
One of them was a singer, M. P. V. Bose, who simply replied “You’re welcome, just tell me when, we’ll figure out details when you land here”.
Little did I know that M. Bose would ask me to sing!
I thought I would learn on the kora, but he told me that I had to vocalize first!
So I became a singer, not by choice, but by chance…
This encounter changed my life for the better.
The carnatic system was so elaborate and beautiful, it was a whole universe by itself.
I had learned music from scratch in Africa, only relying on my guts feeling, and now I was now learning music through the lens of carnatic music, for which I felt so lucky.
I would come back for sure, as I had the feeling I had now two superb mindset to share with the world, with Africa on one side and India on the other. Both were under my skin, it was a passionate love for these two cultures…
I did come back to India a year later or so.
My artistic career had stayed the same in Belgium, I wasn’t seeing any opportunity, I was slowly but surely starting to loose hope of having an audience, and starting to doubt about my choice of becoming a great kora player, or at least to share any of my art with anyone….
Then on my second trip in India, something shifted.
A light suddenly appeared when I wasn’t expecting it.
As I was giving a home concert at Theatre Director Rajiv Krishnan‘s house in Chennai, whom I met through couchsurfing, there was a singer in the audience, who improvised with me on the spot.
She was, and is still, an excellent singer, with astounding abilities and musicality.
Her name is Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy, she took one of my recording with her going back to Bangalore where she lived.
I had an e-mail from her later, asking me if I could come to Bangalore to play some music together.
That was for me a turning point in my life as an artist.
Hadn’t she been there at that time, I would probably have lost all hope on my capabilities.
How such a talented (and recognised) singer could praise my music, when everyone in my own country was ignoring, if not rejecting me?
I suddenly had hope again.
My teacher in Carnatic was also a big support as he was encouraging me a lot in my musical endeavour.
Back to Belgium and the desire to go back to India was very strong.
It took a few years before coming back, but this time it was with a project.
I wrote a story for a full year and worked on a music to accompany it another year with Pauline Bossuroy (accordion player). We used european folk music patterns as a start for composing, because we are both dancers and knew each other through folk dances.
We then went to Bangalore to work with Bindhumalini and Srivi Kalyan (illustrator), creating the indian part of the project.
We spent two weeks together spending a beautiful time.
The project found no echo whatsoever in the editions I contacted in Europe.
It has still to be published.
Through my travels in India I met some amazing artists with which I established an artistic or friendship connection that have no match anywhere in this world.
Having fun doing covers of indian cinema songs in Belgium, it brought me amazing surprises.
I am teaching kora to my friend Lubiana Kepaou since she started, and we agreed on exchanging my lessons for her vocal coaching.
Knowing her artsitic qualities, having her help me to believe in my voice has been, and still is, of great value, especially in that covers project.
After having done a few covers, I contacted Sofar Chennai, Bangalore and Kochi to play for them.
I performed some of my covers, which was very stressing as I was singing in tamil or malayalam in front of an audience that understands and can judge my accent. But it went amazingly well.
One funny thing happened a few months before this little tour…I did a cover of a song in which Shaktisree Gopalan sang.
I did it with my friends, with no production at all, in my room.
A friend in India sent it to Shaktisree, who contacted me and said she would be happy of we could work on something.
That is amazing by itself, but when I went to Chennai, we actually worked on a song together and performed it the same week!
She then asked me if I wanted to meet the legendary AR Rahman!
For a musician that is aware of indian music, this is a huge thing, I can’t thank Shakti enough to have given me this opportunity…
From Vedanth Bahradwaj, Bindhumalini, Dr PV Bose, D Imman, AR Rahman, Girish Gopalakrishnan or Srivi Kalyan and many others, they were the catalyst for me to continue progressing and learning.
It is my hope to be able to work in India on a long term basis.
Nowadays I am taking a lot of online classes on business, marketing and production so that I can become independant financially with my music.
It took me so many years only to put a tune on Spotify, so I have a long way to go, but I’m going there.
Another passion of mine is dance and movement, but that’s a whole entire universe on which I won’t elaborate here, though very connected to music.
That’s why I’m working also on playing european traditional music with the aim of performing for dancers. This beautifully brings my music back home in Europe, as I talked with Toumani Diabaté more than ten years ago…
I am still working as an assistant in surgery part time to sustain myself.