Yacouba Sissoko is a Malian djeli, or griot, and master kora player now living in New York City. Sissoko's family is one of Mali's original djeli lineages, having performed traditional Malian stories for countless generations for noble families and the general public. This story is produced by NBC Learn in partnership with Pearson.
A Keeper of History
YACOUBA SISSOKO (djeli/griot):
In French they call us griot. And storyteller, peacemaker is English word. But Mandingo or Malinke, they call us djeli.
Djeli mean what you have in your blood. And you will never become djeli. You have to be born djeli. From father and mother, the whole family supposed to be djeli.
My name is Yacouba Sissoko. I'm from Mali in West Africa. I am a djeli and I live in New York City now, in Harlem.
We djeli are very, very important. We play very important role in the society to inform the villages, the whole country. We didn't have a phone, no newspaper, nothing. No radio to inform people. And also we bring people together to tell them who they are, because we know the whole history.
Coming to New York as a musician or a djeli storyteller was something that I planned in my young age. It was part of my project, to do a culture exchange. To bring what I have back home to America and learn from here and exchange with what I brought.
I have a huge community, African community here. In the community I do a real djeli job, because they call me with baby ceremony, wedding, and we do everything. So we don't want to lose the culture here because living in the United States.
Like I say, you don't become a djeli. You have to be born djeli. But I was raised by my maternal grandparent.
I start walking because I grab a kora and stand up. And when my legs shake until I become stronger and I walk. Then my grandfather look at me and tell my mom that, "He is gonna be a kora player.”
I start being focused on kora when I was nine years old. I start learning kora playing this song. It's called “Kele Faba” which mean peacemaker.
If I didn't have school, I could be playing kora all day. Sometime my grandfather call at me to stop playing and feed myself and eat some, because I could forget about food. Nothing. Just kora.
It wasn't like I had a lot of pressure to learn, but I had a love for the instrument. That was something that my grandfather have been proud of.
So I had to play this, over months. Just this. Because you have to experience and localize, where are the strings. You don't have to look at it to play and you play by heart. And then he added this string.
This is how you play and develop the song. And you have to double each string that you playing. So that's a harmony. Soon you played this in full with all harmony, bass, melody, improvisation, you qualify as a kora player, so the rest is up to you.
This is a gourd. Cow skin. And now we have fishing line as strings. 21 of that. But you see the ring holding each strings? They are piece of skin, this. And you have to braid them like braiding hair. You braid them against the neck like a ring. So make them really tight. Because from them, you tune the kora. Pushing them up and down. Sharp and flat.
In America, it's not easy to make a kora. So this one was made by my elder brother. And just arrived. And you see? This is my name.
My mom and I, we had a great relationship. If I play any of her song, I will think about her.
Oumou Tounkara. She is my mom. And she work with Ensemble Instrumental of Mali.
That was my mom's song. That God made me proud of myself, to make me so happy, by creating me as a djeli from a beautiful djeli family.
I play with so many great musician from everywhere in the world. So when we play I have to tell them who I am so they get some kind of curiosity to know what is djeli. So I will explain to them. So that's how we keep a culture and share with everybody.
As students settle back in to school, here comes a big homework assignment: StoryCorps wants tens of thousands of teenagers across America to interview a grandparent or elder this Thanksgiving and upload their recordings to the Library of Congress.
Griot, Mali, Djeli, Storyteller, Africa, African, West Africa, West African, Malian, Kora, Instrument, Music, Musician, Harlem, New York City, Malinke, Mandingo, Mandinka, Anthropology, Ethnography, Development, Culture, Tribe, Ensemble Instrumental of Mali, Communication, Yacouba Sissoko, Apollo Theater, Social Studies, History, World History