Foto: Sandy Haessner

maher cissoko

As the youngest son in a large jali (griot) family, Maher Cissoko was born to play the kora. His father and brothers all played the instrument, and several of them have achieved great success, at home and abroad.

To be the youngest member in a family of griots is not easy. You learn from and respect your elders, but you also want to distinguish yourself from them, to renew the traditions in your own way. You wonder how you could do something they have not done already. I have come to the conclusion that in order to make music you have to find who you are. It is my ambition to freely create music that expresses my personality.

For Maher’s father, nothing was more important than passing on the tradition of the kora to his sons. But Maher was at first defiant and not particularly interested in doing the same thing as all his brothers had done before him. Instead, he wanted to play football and percussion, like djembe, sabar, calabash and talking-drum.

The music was always there under the surface. It was my safe base, something I always had, that I did not have to think about. It was always there.

When Maher reached adolescence his father threw him out of the house with an implicit call: Find your own way. At age 17, Maher moved to The Gambia where he cultivated his kora skills with his sisters and the national percussion orchestra.

When later he moved to Germany, Maher found a new relationship with the kora and developed other perspectives on his music. He played drums and kora with his brother Solo Cissokho and the family band Jalikunda Cissokho with Seckou Keita. His kora playing now integrated new influences from flamenco, jazz, reggae and Latin music styles.

When I came to Europe my music changed and became clearer and more defined. That was why I left home, to find my own way. But as a jali you never disappear, you always come back.

For Maher, this meant a different understanding of how the kora sounded in different contexts, and he began to create his own rhythmic and danceable kora music.

I am a musician and whenever I travel from one country to another, I search for its rhythm and what gets people moving. It gives me something new that I take to my heart. Everything is there in my instrument. The kora is complete. When I create a new song, I use all these influences but do it in my own way. It becomes my own music and my rhythm. We play reality music - music that comes from our reality.

Meeting Sousou and studying at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm further inspired Maher to develop a more distinctive style of music.

My father and my sisters focused on getting me to stick to my roots.

The purpose of the jalis is mainly to bring joy and peace to the people. And that is what we want to do today.

Maher Cissoko, who once left his home because he did not want to play the kora, has today found his way back to the instrument and is now one of the most innovative kora players in the world.