US Customs Is Under Fire For Dismantling A Famous Musician’s Highly-Valued Instrument

Hey US Customs! Look, we get it — you and the TSA work a largely thankless job where your main responsibility is keeping people safe, yet everybody still thinks you’re mean. So we can forgive the sometimes sour attitudes — after all, you have to deal with the general public every day, which is likely frustrating. I mean, I can’t even handle walking behind a slow walker at the supermarket! But when what appears to be a delicate and fragile instrument comes your way, maybe… don’t break it.

That’s essentially what US Customs did to Malian Kora player Ballaké Sissoko’s custom-made kora. According to music professor Lucy Durán, Ballaké returned to Paris after a two-week tour of the US only to find his kora — which he travels with all over the world and packs in a hard instrument case — dismantled with a note from US customs that read “Intelligent Security saves time” in Spanish.

The kora is a fairly large 21-string instrument that includes a free-standing bridge (like a violin) and a natural and complex tonality and amplification system — they’re about as fragile as they look. A kora isn’t a bomb, it’s not something to hide drugs in, and it’s not something you can’t see inside with a simple flashlight. Dismantling it, no matter how carefully, is not necessary and putting the thing back together is not as easy as it sounds.

The kora’s sound — like all wooden instruments — is highly dependent on the suspension of its strings and the tension that creates with the instrument’s resonant wooden body. Taking it apart changes its vibration and feel, and may result in weeks of additional work from Ballaké to break the instrument in again, which itself may not even be possible. Ballaké explained the extent of the damage in a statement,

“The strings, bridge and entire, delicate and complex sound system of amplification has been taken apart. Even if all the components that have been disassembled were intact, it takes weeks before a kora of this caliber can return to its previous state of resonance. These kinds of custom-made koras are simply impossible to replace,” adding, “In Mali, the jihadists threaten to destroy musical instruments, cut the tongues out of singers, and silence Mali’s great musical heritage. And yet, ironically, it is the USA customs that have in their own way managed to do this.”

Fellow musicians and fans on Twitter expressed support for Ballaké and criticized US Customs and the TSA for what seems like an unnecessary overstepping of their duties.