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Renowned West African musician says TSA destroyed his one-of-a-kind instrument during a search

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

The renowned Malian artist Ballaké Sissoko took to social media to call out the Transportation Security Administration for dismantling his custom-made kora “without any justification” during a trip home to Paris from John F. Kennedy International Airport on Tuesday.

“The kora is a fragile, handcrafted instrument, and Ballaké’s kora is tailor-made to his own specifications,” read a Facebook post on Sissoko’s official fan page. “Would US customs have dared to dismantle a Stradivarius? The neck of the kora has been removed. The strings, bridge and entire, delicate and complex sound system of amplification have been taken apart. The kora is in pieces.”

Communiqué pour diffusion immédiate Ballake Sissoko / NØ FØRMAT! / Mad Minute Music Thanks to Lucy Durán for the...

Posted by Ballake Sissoko on Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Sissoko had been on a two-week tour across the United States and said, upon returning home and looking inside the case, he was “shocked and dismayed” to find the handcrafted instrument taken apart, along with a TSA Notice of Inspection bearing the motto: “Intelligent security saves time.”

In a statement, TSA denied having opened the instrument case, saying the instrument’s bag tag contained the case’s screening records, which show it was screened, cleared and moved onto a conveyor belt, where it was loaded onto the aircraft all while being unopened.

“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 statement said.

In an email to The Washington Post, Sissoko — who doesn’t speak English — said through a translator that he hasn’t received further explanation of the damage or an apology from TSA. He rebutted the claim that the instrument was damaged in transit.

“It is impossible that the instrument was damaged on transportation, because it was just disassembled in pieces,” he said. “Only human hand can do that.” In his years of international travel, Sissoko said, he’s gotten used to taking all the precautions necessary to protect the delicate instrument while flying.

Traveling from the States to India to Europe to Japan in the past three months, Sissoko said he didn’t run into any problems. He says he and witnesses can confirm the kora was in perfect condition when it was dropped off in luggage check, after he had performed the night before at a show in Brooklyn.

As for the notice that’s mentioned and pictured on Sissoko’s Facebook fan account, TSA said those kind of documents are placed only inside luggage that is inspected by hand, and therefore opened. “Anyone could have placed the notice inside the instrument case,” TSA said.

Fans of Sissoko expressed sympathy for the musician, who could potentially spend weeks reassembling the kora to its former condition. “I am nauseous that such abuse should happen. For so many musicians I know, their instruments are their safe haven, therapist, and friend,” one commenter said.

Many others, including Sissoko, speculated about more sinister motives for the damage to the instrument given the political climate in the States and countries across the world.

“This is an unprovoked and sad act of aggression, a reflection of the kind of cultural ignorance and racism that is taking over in so many parts of the world, and that endangers the best of musicians from Africa and elsewhere,” he wrote.

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