Malian musician Ballaké Sissoko alleges his "cherished, custom-made kora" was "completely destroyed" on a flight this week "without any justification." The kora is a traditional West African instrument similar to a harp. In a press release posted on Facebook, Sissoko’s team says he was traveling on an Air France flight from New York to Paris when the incident occurred. The musician noticed his kora was damaged after arriving on Tuesday.
"He checked in his kora, in its hard case, with its state-of-the-art amplification system, specially designed by sound engineer Julian Cooper," the statement reads. "At the airport, Ballaké picked up his kora case, went back to his flat and slept. But when he woke up and opened the kora case, he was shocked and dismayed to find his kora in many pieces, with only a note from US customs — in Spanish, with the unfortunate motto: 'Intelligent security saves time.'"
Although the release calls out U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it's the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that is responsible for luggage checks as the flight departed the United States. Sissoko included photos of the damaged instrument and the aforementioned inspection note from the TSA. In one picture, the instrument is in pieces with its strings torn apart.
"The kora is a fragile, hand-crafted instrument, and Ballaké’s kora is tailor-made to his own specifications. It is an intrinsic part of his very special sound," the statement says. "The neck of the kora has been removed. The strings, bridge and entire, delicate and complex sound system of amplification have been taken apart. The kora is in pieces. Even if all the components that have been dissembled were intact, it takes weeks before a kora of this calibre can return to its previous state of resonance. These kinds of custom-made koras are simply impossible to replace."
Sissoko just finished a successful two-week tour around the U.S. with his group 3MA, performing in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and New York.
"Ballaké is a highly acclaimed, distinguished performer who travels around the world with his kora for concerts at top venues," the statement notes. "His reputation is impeccable as both artist and human being. He has no criminal record. He is just a brilliant musician, a pacifist, a kind and gentle person, a magnificent and creative performer who manages to give African tradition a contemporary voice with total integrity."
The release concludes, "In Mali, the jihadists threaten to destroy musical instruments, cut the tongues out of singers, and to silence Mali’s great musical heritage. And yet, ironically, it is the USA Customs that have in their own way managed to do this. Would they have dared do such a thing to a white musician playing a classical instrument? What does this tell us about the attitude of the 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."
A spokesperson for TSA tells Yahoo Entertainment, "It is most unfortunate that Mr. Sissoko’s instrument was damaged in transport, however, after a thorough review of the claim, it was determined that TSA did not open the instrument case because it did not trigger an alarm when it was screened for possible explosives."
The TSA notes Sissoko’s unopened case was then moved to a conveyor belt to be sent to the airline baggage room for loading onto the aircraft.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 6, 2020 at 12:48 p.m. ET and has been updated to note TSA’s response.
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