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Shooting death of ‘brilliant’ musician Mouhamed Cisse, 18, rocks a close-knit community

Many in the classical music community and his family are grieving that that a teenager with so much promise had his life cut short.

Manance Cisse holds a photo of her son Mouhamed Cisse in her West Philadelphia home. Mouhamed Cisse, 18, a talented cellist and drummer, was fatally shot about 12 a.m. Monday, June 1.
Manance Cisse holds a photo of her son Mouhamed Cisse in her West Philadelphia home. Mouhamed Cisse, 18, a talented cellist and drummer, was fatally shot about 12 a.m. Monday, June 1.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Shortly before he died of a rare bone cancer, Alex Moll told his mother he needed her to do something for his young friend, Mouhamed Cisse.

“I want you to promise me to keep him going with his music,” Moll, then a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student, told his mother in 2013.

Moll had started teaching Cisse how to play the cello when Cisse was a fourth grader at Lea Elementary. Melanie Moll, of Greenville, N.C., said her son was so excited when he first met Cisse. “He’s really talented. It’s really kind of amazing to see his talent,” she recalled her son saying.

The family kept Alex’s dying wish, helping Cisse attend a summer music camp in Maine from 2014 to 2019, broadening his horizons beyond his West Philly neighborhood.

Last week, Cisse, 18, a high school student with promising talents as a cellist and drummer, was fatally shot on a West Philadelphia street. No arrest has been made. “Homicide detectives are actively investigating this tragedy,” Police Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew said Saturday.

Police have said that Cisse was walking with a 17-year-old boy on Hobart Street near Arch about 12 a.m. June 1, when both were shot. Cisse died shortly afterward at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. The 17-year-old was treated for a gunshot wound to the hand.

Manance Cisse, his mother, had gone to sleep about two hours earlier and at some point heard gunshots from outside, but went back to sleep, she said Sunday.

“This area is known for gunshots,” said her older son, Aboubakar Cisse, 19. He said he was not at home that night because he was working in Ardmore at his job as a studio engineer.

Cisse’s older brother said Sunday that he learned from his brother’s childhood friend, another 17-year-old, that he, Cisse, and the 17-year-old shot in the hand were walking to a 24-hour store at 56th and Market Streets when three males with masks walked toward them, and at least one of them fired.

“I don’t believe they were targets,” Aboubakar Cisse said. “I believe they were mistaken targets.”

He at times interpreted for his mother, who came to the United States from the Ivory Coast in West Africa in 1999.

“I’m hurt. I can’t sleep now. I pray for Mouhamed,” she said.

Cisse’s death touched the classical music scene in Philadelphia and beyond as well as the Philadelphia School District community, with more than 1,000 people donating online to a fund for his family.

He played cello with the nonprofit Musicopia String Orchestra, a youth orchestra, from 2013 to 2019. And he auditioned and got into the Philadelphia School District’s All City Middle School String Orchestra.

He first learned the cello through a Penn program called Music and Social Change, run by the university’s Molly McGlone, which is how he met Penn student and musician Alex Moll in the 2012-2013 school year. Penn students went to Lea Elementary to help teach music to students. Cisse continued on with his lessons the next year when Lea got its own instrumental music teacher.

“Mouhamed rose to the top as definitely the most musically talented in the school,” McGlone said Friday. “We realized how strong he was at playing the rhythms.” Cisse excelled at both bucket drumming and cello, she said.

When Alex Moll died, he left $15,000 of his inheritance from his grandfather for his mother to help Cisse continue studying cello. “Music could be the thing that could get him out,” Melanie Moll said her son told her.

With that money and a scholarship from Camp Encore/Coda in Maine, she sent Cisse to the camp for the last six summers, and provided him with his own cello and supplemental lessons, she said.

“He was a very special person to me and I will miss him like he was one of my own,” she said, crying.

Jamie Saltman, who runs the camp with his wife, said Friday that there’s been a “tremendous outpouring of grief, best wishes, surprise and shock” from people in the close-knit music community over Cisse’s death.

“This kid ... was snatched away from us,” he said.

On Friday, 100 people participated in a Zoom memorial service for Cisse, including the principal of the U School, in North Philadelphia, where Cisse was a junior. Also joining in were faculty from West Philly’s Lea Elementary, a K-8 school, which Cisse attended; family and friends; and members of the music community who knew him in Philadelphia and from the Maine summer camp.

“When I think about Mouhamed, I think about a young man that was just brilliant in so many ways,” U School principal Neil Geyette said during the memorial.

He said he would get frustrated when Cisse wouldn’t tell people about his secret talents. "He always wanted to keep those close to his chest,” Geyette said.

The city offers a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in any homicide. Tipsters can be anonymous and call homicide at 215-686-3334 or the tip line at 215-686-TIPS (8477).