Toumani Diabaté is one in a long line of Malian musicians or griots. Reknowned for their musicianship and vocal skills, members of his family have accompanied warriors on to the battle field to document the event in song for centuries. These griots were a counterpart to the western idea of a bard, a musical CNN, telling tales of battles, births, deaths, marriages and continuing to pass down the Mande folklore of West Africa. Although no longer documenting battles, the Diabaté Family has maintained its storytelling reputation. Diabaté father, Sidiki Diabaté was considered the ‘King of the Kora’, and was responsible for the first recorded album of Kora music in 1970. Too busy touring and recording to pass down his knowledge to his son, Toumani began to teach himself how to play, giving his first live appearance aged just 13. Since then he has continued to play the roots music of Mali, while also fusing it with more Western influences such as flamenco, jazz and blues.
Without doubt Diabaté is a master of his instrument, a 21 string harp-like contraption, crafted out of a calabash covered in cow skin to create a resonator. With 11 strings played with the left hand and 10 with the right, the instrument allows Diabaté to provide both bass line riffs and solo runs at the same time, weaving in and out of each other in polyrhythmic patterns. Listening to his latest solo record, ‘Mande Variations’ is a wholly relaxing experience, as the multiple melodic runs lull you into a state of trance like calm, although it is better to immerse yourself in the record as a whole rather than try to cherry pick songs out of context. As a live experience Toumani comes into his own, his fingers a mesmerising blur, picking out fluid yet intricate melody lines- little wonder then that Joanna Newsom lists his playing as an influence, or that his recordings have led to the likes of Damon Albarn and Björk knocking on the door of his Bamako home seeking collaborations.
Diabaté has spent a great deal of his career collaborating with others, both African (Ali Farka Toure and Diabaté’s own fifty piece Symmetric Orchestra) and Western (US bluesman Taj Mahal, Flamenco act Ketama and Peter Gabriel too). While his collaboration with Western acts has drawn some criticism from his fellow countrymen, Diabaté insists incorporating different influences in his music is part and parcel of being a modern day griot: “G in Mali is the same G in the United States, the same G in Japan, and the same G in Paris. If we just play in the traditional way, people outside West Africa cannot understand what we are doing.”
Mande Variations, only the second solo outing in Diabaté’s 22 year recording career appears, on first listen, to be a return to the roots of Kora music. On further inspection however, other influences begin to reveal themselves. Ever playful, Diabaté (who once claimed German soft metal act Scorpions as a favourite band in an interview with Associated Press bureau chief Todd Pitman) begins album closer ‘Cantelowes’ with his own take on Ennio Morricone’s theme from ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ before his muse takes him off once again, lines flowing in and out of each other till the album draws to a close. Although undoubtedly West African to the core, much of the album draws to mind the American Primitive guitar styles of the likes of John Fahey or Sir Richard Bishop.
As the likes of Vampire Weekend, Mr Albarn and Bjork tip their hats to African music, do yourself a favour; conquer your fear of “World Music” and give Toumani Diabaté a listen.
Toumani Diabaté [myspace]