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.
Grotesque: TSA or US Customs dismantles African music genius Ballaké Sissoko's custom-built kora, which is like dismantling Coltrane's saxophone or Itzhak Perlman's violin. [via Gary Burnett] https://t.co/StF0vawAc6
— Steve Silberman (@stevesilberman) February 5, 2020
This instrument can not be replaced. I can't wait to support a GoFundMe for legal action the TSA. All those scanners and they had to destroy this instrument? Just because this man had Malian passport? https://t.co/axeCUjaerL
— Ferrari Elite Sheppard (@stopbeingfamous) February 6, 2020
Thank you for sharing this link @nkjemisin so that we can hear the extraordinary music of #BallakeSissoko and see the complex beauty of his instrument that was destroyed by U.S. Customs. An outrage and violation beyond words. https://t.co/8JAZKd8HYq
— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) February 6, 2020
I am in pain. Ballaké Sissoko, my heart hurts for your kora and for you. Musicians, how will we protest for our fellow professional? https://t.co/XfX1t4bwCs
— jochanaan (@jochanaan1) February 6, 2020
I got chills all over my body seeing & reading this. Such a vile, disgusting, heartless act. Completely outrageous. My heart goes out to Ballaké Sissoko. I couldn’t imagine finding a beloved instrument like this, especially considering the deep connection he must’ve had with it. https://t.co/aVD5rfhU9i
— natallica (@nataliaelston) February 6, 2020