Toumani Diabate - Making it flow


Toumani Diabate is an ideal candidate to present one of the flagship concerts at this year’s Big Big World festival of world music in Glasgow.


Although this Malian master of the kora, the African harp, represents a family and a musical tradition whose histories go back centuries, he is truly a cosmopolitan musician. Sitting in a programme alongside Cuban virtuosi, jazz adventurers and even the Scottish accents of Angus Lyon & Ruaridh Campbell comes quite naturally to him.


Over the past twenty years Diabate has teamed up with flamenco band Ketama, blues singer Taj Mahal and Scottish harper Savourna Stevenson, and on CD at least his Symmetric Orchestra has expanded to include funky brass and strings from the classical school. The orchestra, which he is bringing to Scotland and Big Big World for the first time, was, he says, born to reflect diversity.


Diabate himself was born to follow in his father, Sidiki’s footsteps, although despite being Mali’s king of the kora, Sidiki had little to do with his son’s development as a musician. The sparkling – and startling – phrases that appear to flow from Toumani’s kora as if a tap has just been turned on are the result of a programme of dedicated study by himself, initially on a small kora given to him by a friend of the family.


"My father was always busy when I was younger, playing with Mali’s Ensemble Instrumental National, and he was more concerned with my general education than with my music," he says.


At the local Franco-Arab school in Bamako, Mali’s capital, Toumani began his official music career as a snare drummer in the school band. In his own time, though, he was working on his kora, practising for hours every night. When he wasn’t playing music, he was listening. Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Otis Redding were particular favourites and he even developed a soft spot for French pop star Johnny Halliday.


"I loved singers especially," he says. "My mother was a fine praise singer and also performed with the Ensemble Instrumental National, and I listened to all of Mali’s great female singers. I never went out at night, I would just stay at home and play into the early hours."


As well as teaching himself to play music, Toumani had to overcome a disability. This is a hazy part of his story, but it seems that as an infant he became ill, possibly as a result of an infection following an injection or, it’s been suggested, due to a rival putting a spell on him and rendering him unable to walk without a crutch. Coming, as Toumani does, from a family of griots – the hereditary keepers of tradition and folk wisdom – the latter isn’t necessarily fanciful.


Difficulties aside, he made his first public performance on the kora at the age of twelve, in 1977, and began an apprenticeship of sorts, playing with regional ensembles. By his late teens he was earning a reputation as an accompanist to Mali’s most popular female singers, including Kandia Kouyate, who was then the most successful artist in Mali, and he was beginning to add ideas and techniques from other instruments to his kora playing.


A visit to London in 1986 with another Malian singer, Ousmane Sacko earned him a return invitation the following year to play at major festivals including Glastonbury, Womad and Radio 3’s Music of the Royal Courts. He also met musicians and music industry movers and shakers such as Peter Gabriel and record producer Joe Boyd, and recorded his first album, Kaira, completely solo in an afternoon in a London studio. The first-ever album of solo kora music, its soulful directness and astonishing self-sufficiency made him a star at home and opened doors across Europe.


He formed the Symmetric Orchestra in 1992 to celebrate Mali’s conversion to a democracy and to make the traditional music he grew up with attractive to a new audience.


"The idea for the group was always in my head," he says. "One of its philosophies is the meeting of generations. The old generation has its experience in music; the new generation has its madness. So we take old tricks and give them completely new arrangements and give new songs something of the tradition. That way, everything ends up with a new twist."


The orchestra grew out of regular Friday night sessions at the Hogon, a club in Bamako where the audience is mixed – young, old, rich, poor, locals, foreigners – and where almost every musician visiting the Malian capital will show up and play.


"Our gigs there are like public rehearsals and sometimes musicians arrive to sit in and end up staying in the band," says Toumani. "It’s really the opposite of my Kaira album. When I recorded that, I was hearing different sounds and voices in my head and I’d find ways of translating them onto the kora, without using overdubs. With Symmetric, all those instruments are now placed in the band and contribute equally to create a groove, a flow."


From The Herald, October 19, 2006.


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