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With new album, this Swedish-Senegalese couple shows their family is ‘made of music’

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Sousou & Maher Cissoko
Credit:

Sandy Haessner

Sousou and Maher Cissoko make beautiful music together — both in a musical partnership and as husband and wife.

It's also music that brought them together, specifically the West African kora, a 21-stringed lute-type instrument.

The kora is not an instrument often associated with Sousou's native Sweden.

"My father is a musician and he was playing together with a kora player from Gambia," she explains.  

She went to The Gambia to study the instrument and when she got back to Sweden, she gave a series of concerts. It was through one of these concerts in Sweden that she met one of Maher's older brothers.

"He invited me to come and study in the Cissoko family in Senegal," she says. 

That's when she met Maher, her future husband.

Maher Cissoko was born into a large family of kora players. His brothers, his father, all play the kora, which is the traditional instrument of Senegal. The family's kora-playing goes back even further. They are West African griots: troubadours who sing and play the kora and share news across villages and regions with the ancient Songhai empire, which today is the countries of Mali, Senegal and The Gambia. The tradition goes back hundreds of years, and has remained the domain of a few families for many generations.

(Sousou claims Maher Cissoko’s griot family goes back 72 or 73 generations, though that would predate the beginnings of the Songhai empire.)  

"I'm from a griot family," Maher says. "It's like father-to-son. Generation-to-generation. So it's like the rules of our art, what we are."

 

Sousou still plays the kora on occasion, she's more apt to pick up the guitar and leave the kora playing to Maher.

They both live in Sweden. As a mixed-race couple with two children of their own, they have encountered challenges outside their musical profession: racism. 

It's something Sousou says she never encountered until their daughter began school. She says that other kids teased her daughter, now 10, telling her, "You're not Swedish because you're brown."

"I didn't expect my kids to be treated differently," Sousou says. "It was a shock to me, actually, when she got to experience that and I felt very frustrated as a mother because I really wanted to protect her. I felt like 'What can I do?'" 

What Sousou and Maher did was make music.

They also named their new album "Made of Music" and included a song with the same title. 

A sample of the lyrics: 
I only wanted to shelter you
From things I never had to endure
But I could not protect you
Gathering wounds I could not cure
 
You are made of music
Music made you
You are made of music
A song made you
"The title is like the meaning of our story because we met through the music," she says. "We have two kids together and they are made of music. So the title song 'Made of Music' is actually a song for our daughter. To give her courage and strength and remind her that she's made of music, so nobody can come and put her down."
 

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