World-renowned master kora player Yacouba Sissoko founded the band SIYA in 1999 in New York City. The band, which originally started as an informal trio, has matured into a quintet that adeptly harmonizes the ancient practice of musical story telling on the solo kora, originating in West Africa, with the modern fuller sounds of today’s musical instrumentation. The musicians of SIYA, most of who come from Mali, perform on traditional instruments that capture the hauntingly beautiful sounds from West Africa.
Yacouba Sissko leads the band playing the kora, a 21-string instrument, which is plucked like a harp. Throughout West African history, the kora was played as a solo instrument by djelys, or storytellers, whose roles in society were to perform for kings, nobility, and village chiefs. The songs sung by djelys were stories that had been passed down from generation to generation, and captured the oral history of the people and culture of West Africa describing social life, cultural identify and family backgrounds. Yacouba, who was born into a Djely griot family, formed SIYA to expand and share this tradition with those not traditionally exposed to these stories.
The other instruments of SIYA include the N’goni, a traditional guitar that was used by griots during the Manding Empire prior to the kora; the “talking drum”, a small drum held on the shoulder of the player and hit with a curved stick or the hand to mimic phrases of the human voice, requiring great dexterity by the player; the Flén/Calebasse, or calabash, that is easily recognized by its deep resounding bass sound frequent to West African music; and an acoustic guitar and/or trumpet both of which adds the more modern approach.
SIYA in Bambara, one of the official languages of Mali, means “Source”. The fundamental principle of the band is to unite people and send a message to its listeners to return to the “source” of community and humanity. Through its music, the band encourages the world to embrace love, peace, hospitality and education, and to help and forgive one another; each an important tenant to Malian living. It is highly spiritual music that inspires the listener to consider the future based on past learnings. The sound of SIYA represents the breakthrough of the past few generations of Western African musicians who have opened up this musical experience to new audiences, incorporating additional instruments and spanning musical genres from jazz, pop, R&B, classical.
SIYA currently performs regularly at large events, primarily participating in cultural exchange programs to expose others to the music and history from West Africa, specifically Mali. SIYA was selected to participate in the Carnegie Hall Education program in 2007, performed at the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Conference sponsored by President Bush in Baltimore, and in 2008 was selected with other performers such as Tracey Chapman to play for the Robert Kennedy’s Foundation.