3 Musicians, 51 Strings: 3MA On Redefining African Musical Traditions | KUNC

3 Musicians, 51 Strings: 3MA On Redefining African Musical Traditions

Originally published on March 15, 2020 11:37 am

The story of one of Mali's most prominent musicians and how his instrument was destroyed in transit made news all over the world last month. Ballaké Sissoko accused the Transportation Security Administration of taking his kora apart sometime during a flight from New York to Paris. The TSA says it never opened the instrument's case. But Sissoko and 3MA, the band he was touring with, are much more than a few weeks of international headlines.

3MA stands for Madagascar, Mali and Maroc — Morocco in French — and the band is comprised of three musicians from three different African nations playing three different stringed instruments. Rajery is from Madagascar and plays an instrument called the valiha; the second "m" is for Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko and oud player Driss El Maloumi is the Moroccan.

"It's not music from Morocco, not from Madagascar or from Mali," El Maloumi says. "It's, at the same time, [using] our culture to make something completely different."

YouTube

The trio first came together 12 years ago and each of the musicians also has a successful solo career. Ballaké Sissoko is probably the best-known internationally: He's the son of Djelimady Sissoko, a renowned kora player. The instrument traditionally has 21 strings and that number has a specific meaning.

"Seven strings represent the past, seven the present and seven the future," Ballaké Sissoko explains. He says he adapted the instrument slightly to play with 3MA, plus he added an extra string to honor the luthier who made the instrument.

"I created the chromatic kora with two and half octaves for this project, to dialogue better with other instruments," he says. "I think music and instruments should evolve and not remain static."

Sissoko's bandmate Rajery plays the 18-stringed valiha, considered Madagascar's national instrument.

"It's made of bamboo. In the middle there is a fissure that separates the two parts," Rajery explains. "A series of movable bridges tune the instrument: You slide the bridge upward to get the bass sound or downward to get the treble sound. It has two octaves."

Last but not least, there's Driss El Maloumi's oud, an instrument that's played all over North Africa and the Middle East. It has 11 strings (in case you're keeping track, that's 51 strings under the fingers of 3 musicians). El Maloumi picks his oud with a plectrum, which is sort of like an elongated guitar pick.

For even longer than El Maloumi has been performing with 3MA, he's been touring and recording with ancient music scholar Jordi Savall. In 2014, Rajery and Ballaké Sissoko joined El Maloumi for The Routes of Slavery, Savall's large ensemble project exploring the cultural impact of the slave trade.

YouTube

Ballaké Sissoko says the project wasn't just about music. "Jordi's personality helped me understand that music is not about virtuosity," he says. "It's about wisdom."

Driss El Maloumi says working with Savall also helped 3MA as a whole.

"Jordi Savall played a very important role in this group. He is all about wisdom and history and he's a great teacher," he says. "As three cultures coming together in our trio, we came to understand how our countries have been deeply affected by the pain that humanity has gone through."

El Maloumi says 3MA's music is all about spirit.

"For me the question is in l'esprit," he says. "Because if you are open in your spirit, you can make anything, and you can go and you can make evolution."

And that's exactly what the trio wants to do says Rajery: present a new image of an ancient continent.

"Mali, Madagascar and Morocco are together to show that before anything else, we are human beings," he says. "We are united through the universal language of music. We want to show Africa from a different point of view: three cultures, three musicians and three emblematic instruments."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
YouTube

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And you may remember a very unfortunate story from last month involving a renowned musician from Mali. Ballake Sissoko arrived in Paris after a U.S. tour, opened the case for his precious stringed instrument and found his kora in pieces. Sissoko compares the loss to a destroyed Stradivarius and blames the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA denies that it ever even opened the instrument case. Happily, though, you'll get to hear that kora pre-destruction in this next piece from Betto Arcos. He met with Sissoko and his group 3MA while it was on tour.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Three musicians from three different African nations playing three different stringed instruments.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARCOS: 3MA stands for Madagascar, Mali and Maroc - Morocco in French. Rajery is from Madagascar and plays an instrument called the valiha. The second M is for Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko. And oud player Driss El Maloumi is the Moroccan.

DRISS EL MALOUMI: It's not music from Morocco, not from Madagascar or from Mali. It's - and the same time, our culture and to make something completely different.

(SOUNDBITE OF 3MA'S "ANAROUZ")

ARCOS: The trio first came together 12 years ago. Each of the musicians has a successful solo career. Ballake Sissoko is probably the best known internationally. He's the son of Djelimady Sissoko, a renowned kora player. Ballake says the traditional instrument has 21 strings.

BALLAKE SISSOKO: (Through interpreter) Seven strings represent the past. Seven's present and seven the future. I created the chromatic kora with two and half octaves for this project to dialogue better with other instruments.

ARCOS: He demonstrates.

SISSOKO: (Playing kora).

ARCOS: Sissoko's trio mate Rajery plays the 18-stringed valiha, considered Madagascar’s national instrument.

RAJERY: (Through interpreter) It’s made of bamboo. A series of movable bridges tune the instrument. You slide the bridge upward to get the bass sound or downward to get the treble sound. It has two octaves. (Playing valiha).

ARCOS: Last but not least, there's Driss El Maloumi’s oud, an instrument that's played all over North Africa and the Middle East. It has 11 strings - C, G, D, A, F and C. In case you're keeping track, that's 51 strings under the fingers of three musicians. El Maloumi picks his oud with a plectrum.

MALOUMI: This is real important for Arabic music like that. (Playing oud).

ARCOS: For even longer than El Maloumi has been performing with 3MA, he's been touring and recording with ancient music scholar Jordi Savall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARCOS: In 2014, Rajery and Ballake Sissoko joined El Maloumi for "The Roots of Slavery," Savall’s large ensemble project exploring the cultural impact of the slave trade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KOUROUKANFOUGA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Non-English language).

ARCOS: Ballake Sissoko says the project wasn't just about music.

SISSOKO: (Through interpreter) Jordi’s personality helped me understand that music is not about virtuosity. It’s about wisdom.

(SOUNDBITE OF 3MA'S "KOUROUKANFOUGA")

ARCOS: Driss El Maloumi says 3MA's music is about spirit.

MALOUMI: Because if you are open in your spirit, you can make anything, and you can go on. You can make evolution.

ARCOS: And that's exactly what the trio wants to do, says Rajery - present an evolved image of an ancient continent.

RAJERY: (Through interpreter) Mali, Madagascar and Morocco are together to show that before anything else, we are human beings. We are united through music. We want to show Africa from a different point of view. Threes culture, three musicians and three emblematic instruments. Now, that's fantastic.

ARCOS: For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF 3MA's "MOUSTIQUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.