TOUMANI DIABATE (MALI)
There are only a handful of musicians whose names are universally synonymous with their instrument. Think of the sitar, and Ravi Shankar instantly springs to mind. With the duduk, it’s Djivan Gasparyan. And those with any knowledge of world music will instantly associate the kora with Malian virtuoso Toumani Diabaté. For it is he that has been most, erm, instrumental over the past two decades in bringing West Africa’s iconic 21-stringed harp-lute to the international stage.
Born into a lineage of griots or jelis (hereditary musicians) stretching back 71 generations to the glory days of the Mandé Empire, you might think he had an easy start. However, the tradition of fadenya (‘struggle between generations’) meant that Toumani never had a single lesson from his father Sidiki Diabaté, once known as ‘king of the kora.’ He was thus forced to find his own ‘voice’ on the instrument – one which, while strongly rooted in his own tradition, has been consistently open to experiment and cross-fertilisation with others. As he observed at a recent gig in London: “A lot of people say English is the international language. I say music is.”
Starting to play kora at only five, it was soon obvious he was unusually gifted. He joined his first ensemble at 13, and by his late teens was accompanying the likes of singers Kandia Kouyate and Oumou Sangaré on international tours. At 21, he recorded his stunning solo debut Kaira (1988), an instant classic. Subsequent collaborations included two albums with the Spanish flamenco group Ketama (as ‘Songhai’), the Djelika project (1995) and the ethereal New Ancient Strings (1998) with his cousin Ballake Sissoko. He has also guested on albums by Taj Mahal, Salif Keita, Kasse Mady Diabate and Damon Albarn, among others.
Toumani has been exceptionally active of late, most recently on his second album with the Symmetric Orchestra in 2006 (“trying to rebuild the Mande Empire in a culture way – not a political way”) and In The Heart Of The Moon (2005), his Grammy-winning duet album with the late Ali Farka Touré. A second instalment from those sessions is slated for release in 2008, preceded by another solo album in 2007.
Toumani Diabate on the web
Profile on the Leopard Man's African Music guide
Album Review on bbc.co.uk/music
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