Toumani Diabaté has been Mali’s (and therefore probably the world’s) leading kora player for nearly 30 years. He first came to my attention in the late eighties as part of ‘world music supergroup’ Songhei, musically sparring with Spanish pop flamenco stylists Ketama, and celebrated English double bass for hire (and occasional Peter Gabriel looky-likey) Danny Thompson.
He’s been part of several high-profile collaborations since, including the rather shoddy Mali Music, where he allowed his music to be interrupted by Damon Albarn, and rather more successful alliances with blues guitarists Taj Mahal and fellow Malian Ali Farke Touré, as well as a guest appearance on Björk’s last album.
He released a big band album with his Symmetric Orchestra (Boulevard De L'independence) last year but unlike much of his previous recorded work, The Mandé Variations is just Toumani and his rippling kora, unadorned, uncaccompanied, and apparently knocked out in a single afternoon, not at his home in Bamako, but at a recording studio in Wood Green, London, of all places.
But that’s not to say that the record feels rushed or half-baked. He’s clearly a virtuoso, and this is luscious, deep, rich, magical music that conjures spirits of joy and pain, loss and reward with apparently equal ease. Much of his inspiration reportedly comes from the traditional songs passed through generations of griot, the hereditary caste of storytellers, historians and songsmiths of west Africa to which Toumani belongs, but he also takes inspiration from other spheres - Elyne Road has the hint of an old UB40 tune, while Cantelowes features a snippet from the gunfight theme from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to A Fistful of Dollars.
It’s been well recorded too, presumably with a single mic in a room with just the right amount of natural reverb – close your eyes with a decent system and he could be sitting next to you.
If The Mandé Variations has echoes of a classical music recital, an impression helped by the title, it is one in the very best sense, free of any stuffiness or pretence, just a man and his instrument, creating magic.
Yes indeed, that's the man. On a similar theme I saw Bassekou Kouyate at the Barbican the other week. He doesn't play kora, he plays ngoni, which is a bit more like a banjo from the same part of the world. Awesome stuff, though I haven't got any albums by him yet.
Anyone else got any recommendations for more stuff like this?
Dave, would have loved to have seen the show, African music with choir can create some great moods with the harmonies and tones, yes we all know that Paul simon's Graceland helped push these sounds into public view, but it was this music that made the Graceland album a hit, - Great stuff.