TSA destroys custom-made instrument, says Malian musician Ballaké Sissoko

"It is most unfortunate that Mr. Sissoko’s instrument was damaged in transport," said a TSA spokesperson who denied the agency had damaged the kora.
Image: Ballak? Sissoko, left, in concert in Paris on Sept. 9, 2015.
Ballake Sissoko with his kora at a concert in Paris. Paul Charbit / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images file

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By Isobel van Hagen and Sarah Kaufman

One of Mali's most prominent musicians has criticized the Transportation Security Administration after he said his "impossible-to-replace" instrument was destroyed by agents at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

On Thursday, Ballaké Sissoko told NBC News via email that his custom-made kora — a 21-string bridge-harp used extensively in West Africa — had been "totally destroyed" during a tour of the U.S.

"Normally they just open the flight case because of the strange shape of the instrument and case," he said. "This time, they disassembled and broke it."

Calling it a "terrible situation," he added that he hoped "to get an apology at some point."

A TSA spokesperson later denied the instrument had been damaged by the agency.

"It is most unfortunate that Mr. Sissoko’s instrument was damaged in transport," said the spokesperson via email late Thursday. "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."

In an Feb. 5 Facebook post about the incident, Sissoko, 52, said he discovered the instrument in pieces Tuesday at his home in Paris. He said he had boarded the flight Feb. 2. and arrived in the French capital the following day.

The case was accompanied by a note in Spanish from the TSA, which said: "Smart security saves time."

In his Facebook post, Sissoko asked whether the agents would have "dared to dismantle a Stradivarius" violin, adding that his kora had been destroyed because of the "cultural ignorance and racism that is taking over many parts of the world."

Sissoko had just completed a tour of U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and New York, with his group, 3MA. The band takes its name from the first two letters of each member's country of origin in French: Mali, Maroc (Morocco), Madagascar.

Sissoko started playing the kora for the Orchestre National du Mali when he was 13, and he eventually toured across Africa. After moving to France, he formed his own troupe, gaining international recognition.

Sissoko said he would now have to travel to Mali's capital, Bamako, to buy parts for a new kora.