T.S.A. Denies Opening Case of Mali Musician Whose Instrument Was Destroyed

A renowned Malian musician said when he came back to Paris on Monday from a concert tour in the United States, he opened the case to his kora and found the instrument in pieces.

The musician, Ballake Sissoko, 53, blamed the Transportation Security Administration, prompting outrage among his fans on Facebook and international headlines.

But the T.S.A. said on Thursday that the agency hadn’t opened the case holding the kora, a delicate long-necked harp lute.

“It is most unfortunate that Mr. Sissoko’s instrument was damaged in transport,” the agency said in a statement. “However, after a thorough review of the claim, it was determined that T.S.A. did not open the instrument case, because it did not trigger an alarm when it was screened for possible explosives.”

Mr. Sissoko flew from Kennedy International Airport in New York to Paris on an Air France flight on Sunday evening, after he wrapped up the two-week tour, according to his manager, Corinne Serres.

When he opened the case to his kora, which had been custom made for him, Ms. Serres said, he found it destroyed.

The instrument was in pieces, a photo provided by Ms. Serres shows — the neck ripped from the body, the strings yanked and the bridge taken off the leather soundboard.

Inside the case, Ms. Serres said, was what appeared to be a T.S.A. advisory, written in Spanish, telling Mr. Sissoko that his case had been picked for a physical inspection to search for “prohibited items.” (Mr. Sissoko speaks French.) The notice also appeared to have tape around it.

Ms. Serres said by email on Thursday that Mr. Sissoko was “heartbroken” when he saw the damaged kora.

“His instrument is part of him,” Ms. Serres said. “That’s why it’s so precious.”

Ms. Serres said she was “very shocked” that the T.S.A. denied damaging the kora.

“It is totally ridiculous to say that the kora can have been dissembled by transport,” she said. “This kora travels worldwide and recently went to India, China, Japan, Finland.”

Ms. Serres said that it was possible the kora could have been damaged in flight, but that it was highly unlikely that it could have been taken apart “without the help of some bad people touching it.”

She had earlier released a statement about the incident that called the destruction “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.”

The statement said that “in Mali, the jihadists threaten to destroy musical instruments, cut the tongues out of singers, and to silence Mali’s great musical heritage.”

But it was a United States agency that “in their own way managed to do this,” the statement said. “Would they have dared do such a thing to a white musician playing a classical instrument?”

But the T.S.A. said on Thursday that officials had examined the bag tag that was affixed to the case and crosschecked it with its checked baggage screening records. They then learned that the instrument case had been screened through a scanner but had not triggered an alarm, the T.S.A. said.

That “means that T.S.A. did not open the case,” according to the T.S.A.

A decal was placed on the case to show it had been screened and cleared, the T.S.A. said. The case was then moved to a conveyor belt and sent to the airline baggage room so it could be loaded on the plane, according to the T.S.A.

On its website, the T.S.A. explains that it screens 1.4 million checked bags daily for explosives and other dangerous items. Most bags are not physically searched by an agent, but if a bag is opened, the T.S.A. will place a notification inside saying that the bag was opened and checked. Once the screening process is finished, the airline brings the checked bags on to the flight.

Mr. Sissoko had been performing with his band 3MA, a trio of musicians that also includes Driss El Maloumi, an oud player from Morocco, and Rajery, a valiha player from Madagascar, according to the statement released by Ms. Serres and Mr. Sissoko’s website.

Following the process Mr. Sissoko normally takes when flying, the musician and his tour manager on Sunday night dropped off the kora at the oversized luggage desk at Kennedy Airport, where the case was scanned, Ms. Serres said by email.

Nobody at the counter expressed any concerns, she said.

On its site, the T.S.A. states that “musical instruments must undergo screening when transported as carry-on or in checked bags.” If an instrument requires any special instructions or handling, passengers should tell a T.S.A. agent, the agency says.

Ms. Serres said the kora’s case “is tagged with fragile tags so it is obvious that the instrument should not be manipulated.”

A spokesman at Air France, Arturo Diaz, said on Thursday that the airline at Kennedy Airport “confirmed that all checked luggage is given to the T.S.A. for screening immediately after it is checked in.”

“After screening,” he said, “luggage is given back to to our airport team to load onto the plane.”

“As a matter of policy our staff do not open checked luggage,” Mr. Diaz added. “If we have any concerns about the contents, we address them at check-in by having the customer open their luggage in front of our staff. By all indications, the damage to the instrument does seem to have occurred during the T.S.A. screening given the presence of the note.”

Mr. Sissoko arrived in Paris on Monday morning and went to bed, Ms. Serres said.

When he woke up, he opened his case and found the broken instrument, she said, adding that he immediately called her and sent her pictures of the destroyed kora. Ms. Serres said that despite the agency’s denials, Mr. Sissoko would press on with a formal complaint with the T.S.A.

“We will go on fighting,” Ms. Serres said.

Mr. Sissoko has been touring all over the world for 30 years and has never had a problem traveling with the kora, Ms. Serres said.

The T.S.A. notice, in a photo provided by Ms. Serres, appeared to be a standard advisory that says locks on luggage picked for inspection may have to be forced open to screen for prohibited items.

“T.S.A. sincerely regrets having to do this, however T.S.A. is not liable for damage to your locks resulting from this necessary security precaution,” the notice says. It does not say anything about what the agency’s responsibility might be toward other personal property that could be damaged during a search.

On its website, the T.S.A. instructs passengers who believe their property was damaged during a screening to fill out a claim. Investigations into claims can take up to six months.

“All claims are investigated thoroughly and the final decision to approve a claim rests with T.S.A.,” the agency says on its site.

Millions of inspection notices have been placed in bags since the agency was established 18 years ago, the T.S.A said on Thursday.

“It is very easy for someone to get ahold of one of these inspection notices,” the agency said. “Anyone could have placed the notice inside the instrument case.”

The T.S.A. also added that the condition of the notice in the photo appeared to be “poor.”

“T.S.A. does not affix tape to its inspection notices,” the agency said.

Ms. Serres said it would cost 5,000 euros, about $5,500, to replace the kora, which was made to provide the exact sound and feel Mr. Sissoko wanted.

To replace it, Mr. Sissoko will also have to travel to Mali to get a calabash, a bottle-shaped gourd that provides the body of the kora, she said. According to the statement released by Ms. Serres, even if all the parts of the kora that were dissembled remained intact, it would still take weeks to bring the instrument back to its previous state.

“These kinds of custom-made koras are simply impossible to replace,” the statement said. “They are certainly not available in shops.”

In a brief statement, Mr. Sissoko said that, as an African artist, he often experiences racism when he travels.

“Many people don’t treat you normally and can be very arrogant,” he said in the statement. “I always try to keep calm to avoid problems.”

But, he added, for those who do not experience the treatment directly, “you cannot understand how it is.”

Source link