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Toumani Diabaté

Malian musician's songs remain sparkling and other-worldly

By Jocelyn Bell

The Mandé Variations
By Toumani Diabaté (Mali)
World Circuit


A few years ago, I travelled through Mali with a relief and development agency. On a full-day drive from the capital to the rural villages, I looked out at the baobab trees, the mud huts and military checkpoints and wondered if I’d come to a different planet.

I longed for some local music — a soundtrack that would help me make sense of this dry and unusual landscape.

Our driver played a cassette of one of Mali’s (and Africa’s) greatest musical exports, Ali Farka Touré. It worked. The gritty singer-guitarist set the unforgiving sand, heat and dust to music. Another great Malian musician, Toumani Diabaté, has the same effect.

Diabaté plays the kora, a 21-string harp made from a large calabash covered with a cowskin resonator. The complex polyrhythms he produces and the Lydian scale he uses are other-worldly — like Mali itself.

The virtuoso was born into a musical family. His father, Sidiki, was called the king of kora. Toumani is known as the prince. A female cousin is also a premiere kora player. Diabaté’s skill with the traditional West African instrument has taken him all over the world, sometimes collaborating with musicians such as American jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd and Icelandic popstar Björk. A collaboration with Touré for the album In the Heart of the Moon won him a Grammy in 2006.

The Mandé Variations is Diabaté’s second solo album and is named for a large West African ethnic group that spans Senegal to Niger. The piece Ali Farka Touré honours his late mentor and is moody like the great guitarist himself. Cantelowes and Kaounding Cissoko, my favourites, are more sparkling and ethereal.

In contrast to the gritty Touré, Diabaté casts Mali in a softer light, one that’s more meditative and serene. Different images spring to mind, like the life-giving Niger river, the elaborate mud mosques at the centre of every village, or the women who carry water jugs on their heads with elegance.

If I ever return to Mali, it’s Diabaté that I’ll pop into the tape player.

Recommended listening:

Boulevard de l’Independence (2006)
In the Heart of the Moon (2005)
New Ancient Strings (1999)

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