Fode Sissoko is a master kora player from Senegal West Africa, whose musical lineage goes back to the beginnings of the Mandinka empire. As a result, Fode began to play the instrument at the age of 5 because it was tradition. His grandfather Soundioulou Cissokho was dubbed "King of the Kora" and traveled all over the world as an artist representative for the President of Senegal. Fode is not only a master kora player but can also play many other West African traditional instruments. His family has a compound in Senegl where people can stay to learn music, dance, and the African culture. Also being a New York resident, Fode continues to perform the West African traditional arts here in the States at schools and other learning institutions. I recently conversed with Fode about his career. He also played me a few songs that were nicely executed on the kora.
R.V.B. - Hi Fode, this is Robert von Bernewitz from New York, How are you?
F.S. - Pretty Good. I've been running errands that happen in life.
R.V.B. - It's sounds like your staying very busy in your career with Fakoli Dance and Drum.
F.S. - Yes, the Fakoli means "the ancestor". I'm a griot, which means in West Africa, the tradition is passed from family to family... generation to generation.
R.V.B. - So the stories that you share with your students, go back a long way.
F.S. - Of course, because I'm the grandson of the "King of the Kora"... in the first hut. My mother was the daughter of the king. My father was the son of the king, and My father's father was the king.
R.V.B. - Can you tell me a little bit about the king?
F.S. - His name was Soundiolou Cissokho... "King of the Kora". (He plays and sings a short song on the kora) Yes, so that's the Kora.
F.S. - That's because my mother was the daughter of the King of the Kora.
R.V.B. - So did the King travel around to different regions?
F.S. - He was like a President. He was going all around the world performing in the name of Africa. He was an advisor for the President, as he was traveling around performing.
R.V.B. - What instruments did your mother play?
F.S. - My mother would sing and she played the bell.
R.V.B. - You have a family compound over in Senegal? How much family of yours is over there.
F.S. - I'm a Mandingo. I have the biggest family in all of West Africa. In West Africa there was the Mandinka empire... before it was divided into many countries. They were all my family. The Mandinka empire was all through Nigeria in the 19th century. That's when the Mandinka empire ended and the Fuga Djallon empire began. 90% on the Mandingo people converted to Muslim. The other 10% stayed with their indigenous heritage.
R.V.B. - You mentioned the word griot... does the word jali have the same meaning?
F.S. - Yes, griot and jali is the same word. You could be a Jali of guitar... you could be a jali of balafon... you could be a jali of djembe... you could be a jali of a lot of different instruments. you could be a jali of singing. A jali is a definition of a performer or an entertainer.
R.V.B. - Can you give me an example of a story that is passed down from generation to generation, as a griot?
F.S. - I have so many stories, (haha) Ok... Once upon a time there was no electricity in Africa. When it gets dark at night, the parents will not let their children play in the playground. It was dark, but every once in a while when the full moon is out, it makes the beach sand very bright. That's when the parents let the children play out at night. They will play a long time at night and give thanks with a full moon celebration. They call it Yankadi.
F.S. - I started with a kora because it was a tradition. I have never had a teacher since I was born. I learned at the age of 5, and I was already traveling around with my kora.
R.V.B. - Is a child's kora the same size as an adults kora? Do they have different models?
F.S. - There is only one kora. There is no child kora. There is a little one but it's only for decoration. You can put it in your house. There is only one kora with 21 strings or 22 strings. I'm the only one who can play the 34 string, or 64 string.
R.V.B. - The African drum is synonymous with African culture... did you learn to play the drum at the same time?
F.S. - My great ancestor invented the drum called the "djembe". His name was Soumangrou. He was a great Mandinka Susa king. He invented the balafon also. Our ancestry history includes the language of the drum. There were different djembe's also... for music... for funerals... for celebrations... for welcoming the king. There are all different types of djembe's for rituals... or djembe of shekere.
R.V.B. - As you became prolific at these instruments, did you play with your family for local events?
F.S. - My family was very popular, and my grandfather was the king of that instrument, so since I was very little... the Europeans were taking me all over. The people in Africa were amazed that this kid could play this instrument while not being of the age to go to school. People were taking me all around. I had a lot of success performing before I had a chance to go to school. I have 26 brothers and sisters and they are all musicians. As I was... they all are gifted. I cannot escape from it.
R.V.B. - I gather you have a studio in New York?
F.S. - I do not have a studio in New York because I was back home since 2011 and I came back last July. I just moved down to the city. I was in upstate New York and now I'm at 147th street.
R.V.B. - How often do you go back to Senegal?
F.S. - I usually go back twice a year... definitely once a year. It depends on how many people go to our compound to see how African people live their life... and to learn the language and culture. That is all through music and dance.
R.V.B. - Do you do a lot of performances over here in the States these days?
F.S. - Yes, I do performances in schools and other educational facilities. I do performances in all situations. I just came back from Disney. They needed someone who could walk on stilts, dance, and play the djembe and balafon.
R.V.B. - I see that you performed for a while with Baba Olatunji.
F.S. - Yes, Olatunji was a great man. In the 50's, he was instrumental in bringing African drumming and culture to America. He wrote the song recorded by Santana "JIngo Rock". I performed with him for around 11 years.
R.V.B. - Is there any performance that you've had in your career that you really enjoyed tremendously?
F.S. - Well, I perform so much and every time I perform I say "I like this one... no I like this one." I've performed all over Europe in places like Sweden, Italy, France, and Germany.
R.V.B. - Do you get different responses from different lands or does everyone appreciate your performances the same?
F.S. - Everyone appreciates it. The audience is the same. I was born to perform... it's in my blood. I play a lot of different instruments. It's my nature... my creation.
F.S. - I play the balafon... I play the guitar... I plan ngoni... I play the balon... and I play all different kinds of drums. I dance on the stilts.
R.V.B. - Tell me a little about your band. Do you have set members that you play with?
F.S. - Yes, I have a bass player, keyboards and a drumset. We use African instruments. We bring the African Mandinko music to the world beat. Everybody can feel yourself inside that music.
R.V.B. - I appreciate you taking the time to discuss your music and culture with me, I found it fascinating. Enjoy your weekend
F.S. - You too Robert. God bless you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Fode Sissoko visit this site. www.fakolidanceanddrum.com
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