Maybe he should keep his experimental tendencies and rockisms for his Symmetric...
Jon Lusk 2008
Kora maestro Toumani Diabaté has a lot of legend to live up to. Although synonymous with the instrument ever since his sparkling international solo debut, Kaira (1988), The Mandé Variations is only his second solo disc. While Kaira introduced a new level of technical sophistication, it stuck to folkloric repertoire inherited from Mali's ancient Mandé empire, founded way back in 1235. This new album continues to develop kora technique and covers some of the same territory, but also ventures beyond the Mandé heartland for inspiration – with mixed results.
World Circuit's renowned production/recording team of Nick Gold and Jerry Boys have captured the kora's sound as never before, with an almost cinematic clarity. You can just about see Diabaté drawing breath, and the folds of his boubou brushing against one another as he picks over the strings. He seems to take an almost playful delight in the reverberations of the bass notes on Ali Farka Touré, his tribute to the late great 'desert blues' guitarist. But in attempting to evoke Ali's genius, Diabaté gets carried away in a pointless display of virtuoso trills that bear no relation to the great man's understated playing. If this were transposed onto electric guitar, it would sound like poodle rock excess. To a lesser extent, the same problem mars the only other completely improvised – and rather directionless – composition, El Nabiyouna, and even the coda of the otherwise gorgeous ten-minute opener, Si Naani.
Still, when Diabaté remains rooted in tradition (while both composing or reinterpreting ancient themes) the results are sublime. Elyne Road has a flowing, restful vibe, as does Ismael Drame. Kaouding Cissoko (dedicated to the late Senegalese kora player) is an engagingly dense, racing piece, and the closing Cantelowes has a wonderful, meditative groove, even if it does start with a quote from Morricone's The Good The Bad & The Ugly, as if to wind up purists.
It's laudable that Diabaté never stands still as an artist, but The Mandé Variations won't pass the Buena Vista dinner party test. Maybe he should keep his experimental tendencies and rockisms for his Symmetric Orchestra.