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Prominent Malian Musician Alleges That TSA Destroyed His Instrument

Malian <em>kora</em> player Ballaké Sissoko<em>.</em>
B. Peverelli
Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko.

Updated Friday, Feb. 7 at 5:00 p.m. ET

One of Mali's most prominent musicians, Ballaké Sissoko, has alleged that the Transportation Security Administration [TSA] destroyed his specially designed instrument during a trip from New York to Paris that began on Monday evening. On Thursday afternoon, the TSA said that its agents did not open the instrument case or create the damage.

Sissoko is an internationally celebrated player of the kora -- a delicate, harp-like West African instrument that usually has 21 strings. A Tiny Desk concert alumnus, he began his professional career at age 14, and has collaborated with the likes of Taj Mahal.

The alleged incident occurred as Sissoko was leaving the U.S. after a cross-country tour with the trio3MA; he was booked on an overnight flight on Air France from New York's John F. Kennedy airport.

Sissoko checked his kora, which was packed in a hard flight case covered with "fragile" stickers, as oversized baggage. Koras are large instruments that can stand more than 4 feet from the tip of the long, rounded neck to the base of its big gourd body.

His manager, Corinne Serres, told NPR on Friday afternoon that following their usual routine, Sissoko and his tour manager stayed with the instrument as it passed through a CT scanner and was loaded onto a conveyor belt at JFK. It was not opened at that point.

Serres says that when Sissoko picked the case up in Paris, it looked fine and undamaged.

But once he arrived at his apartment in Paris, Sissoko says, he opened the case to find his kora dismantled.

An official statement posted to Sissoko's Facebook page, written by ethnomusicologist and former BBC presenter Lucy Durán, notes: "The neck of the kora has been removed. The strings, bridge and entire, delicate and complex sound system of amplification has been taken apart.... These kinds of custom-made koras are simply impossible to replace."

Serres says that the instrument is completely broken, and cannot be repaired.

On Thursday afternoon, a TSA spokesperson said: "It is most unfortunate that Mr. Sissoko's instrument was damaged in transport, however, after a thorough review of the claim, it was determined that TSA did not open the instrument case because it did not trigger an alarm when it was screened for possible explosives."

The photo that Sissoko posted on Facebook of the damage to his instrument.
/ Ballaké Sissoko
Ballaké Sissoko
The photo that Sissoko posted on Facebook of the damage to his instrument.

Sissoko says that inside the case, alongside the dismantled instrument, was an official note from the TSA written in Spanish, that said that agents had opened the case for inspection, and that its contents "may have been searched for prohibited items."

At the bottom of the notification is this slogan: "Seguridad inteligente ahorra tiempo" — "Smart security saves time."

Sissoko's official statement notes a very particular cultural irony. Musicians in Mali, Sissoko's home country, have been targeted by Islamist militants and Tuareg separatists linked to al-Qaida in northern Mali.

"In Mali," the musician's statement says in part, "the jihadists threaten to destroy musical instruments, cut the tongues out of singers and to silence Mali's great musical heritage. And yet, ironically, it is the USA Customs [sic] that have in their own way managed to do this."

Sissoko's statement also questions if TSA would have destroyed a fine Western classical instrument: "Would US customs [sic] have dared to dismantle a Stradivarius?"

There have been a number of incidents in which leading European musicians have said that their instruments were destroyed by the TSA. The Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, who travels with his own Steinway, has said that he has had one piano completely destroyed by TSA, and another that had its keyboard ripped out. In 2013, German cellist Alban Gerhardt said that TSA carelessness led to his $20,000 bow being snapped in half.

According to theTSA website, musical instruments must undergo screening, whether they are carry-on or checked.

A number of U.S. organizations, ranging from the American Federation of Musicians union to the League of American Orchestras and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), have been active in efforts to "resolve long overdue inconsistent travel policies" when it comes to flying with instruments in the U.S. In 2015, the Department of Transportation (DOT) adopted new regulations concerning musical instruments, but those rules only apply to U.S. airlines.

The TSA said it has since checked the airline baggage tag affixed to Sissoko's kora case against screening records, and that the case and instrument were scanned by a CT machine. Because the case and instrument did not trigger the alarm, TSA did not open the case. According to the TSA, an agent then placed a decal on the bag tag indicating that the case and its contents were screened and cleared, and that the case was moved onto the conveyor belt to be sent to the airline baggage room for loading onto the plane.

Additionally, the TSA noted that the inspection notice that Sissoko found inside his case appeared to be in poor condition, and had tape on it. The TSA said that it does not affix tape to its notices, and noted that in the 18 years of the agency's existence, many millions of such notices have been distributed — suggesting that anyone who handled the instrument case could have placed the notice inside.

On Friday afternoon, Serres, called the TSA's remarks "a full lie," saying that what the agency has said publicly did not line up with the physical evidence Sissoko has.

Serres says that Sissoko now has to commission a new kora to be made for him. She added: "It's not the money. But the instrument, and the time and care it takes to make it perfect for Ballaké, is precious."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.