TOUMANI DIABATE / “Toumani Diabate Mixtape”
Musically, Mali is a muthafucka! Terrible, tough and too goddamn much to even talk about in one breath. You want to discuss music in Mali you best bring some dinner and sleeping clothes, ‘cause by the end of the first day you are only going to just be starting. And imagine what would happen if you spoke the languages there!
In Mali they’re playing music that been around for over a thousand years. Yeah, you read right—over a thousand years, passed from generation to generation, ninety times or more. And then right around the corner some youngsters or getting with some old heads and coming up with some stuff off the top of the dome, keeping time with the bottom of their big toe and got the microphone set up across the road from the goat. And it’s mean, too mean to be believed.
I’m going to try and get this together—part of the problem is this astounding music is playing in my earphones while I’m trying to write about it and my fingers keep getting confused. It’s like are my fingertips supposed to follow what my brain is saying or follow the flow of the music?
My solution is to pause and rest awhile. Let the sounds have their way ‘cause my mind sure isn’t any match for the music.
What’s funny is that I didn’t intend to write about Toumani Diabate. At first the contemporary section was going to be devoted to The Spam Allstars—don’t ask, I’ll get around to them in the next couple of weeks or so. Anyway, once I switched from Spam, I thought about doing some contemporary Afrobeat because I had recently picked up some heavy music from Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble and a couple of other bands. But I didn’t have time to go through all that music and choose cuts.
That’s when I though about this new kora music I had picked up from Toumani’s cousin, Mamadou Diabate.
Mamadou is so fast, he’d make a jackrabbit jealous. But then I said Toumani is the one whom I first really, really dug as a kora player and since they are related maybe I ought to drop a Toumani track in the Mamadou mix. But one quick listen to one track from Toumani’s new album, The Mande Variations, and I just threw my hands up. No mas; I knew what I had to do.
What had happened was, I was laying on the grass, a little ways off from the stage, in the shadow of but not inside the tent. The weather was fine as the thigh on a big legged woman. Or the smile on a young Denzel Washington. Anyway, everything was everything. The sky was blue. The grass was soft. And Toumani Diabate was holding forth on the kora.
I literally was in a trance. I stayed there until the music was done and then I slowly got up and floated away.
So one quick listen and I was back on my back at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, eyes closed digging Toumani from that spring day over fifteen years ago. (Damn, it’s been that long?!) So, I said, OK, Toumani it is.
People far, far more knowledgeable about Mali music then I will ever be consider Toumani Diabate the greatest living kora player. I can’t prove it but my ears tell me they are right. I’ve certainly not heard any kora that I love more than Diabate’s.
This mixtape grew out of my frustration trying to decide what cut to feature and the realization that Toumani covers so much territory and besides, most BoL folk probably have not heard Toumani before so maybe I ought to make it a mixtape. And that’s what has happened.
We’ve got selections from four distinctly different albeit recent albums from Toumani. I think next week, I’ll drop some of Touani’s flamenco, jazz, and blues collaborations, each of those three projects is exquisite but right now they are beyond the scope of what I’m going to deal with this week.
We open with a dialogue between recently deceased Malian ‘blues’ master Ali Farka Toure on guitar and Toumani on kora. Some of those textures surpass Mississippi delta blues as far as the primordial-ness of the sonic tones and timbres. I was especially impressed by the interplay of the two masters, intertwining like two serpents mating.
The album is called In The Heart Of The Moon and is as close to essential as any one Malian album can be. BTW, they won a Grammy for this album. The tracks with Ali Farka are:
2. “Ai Ga Bani”
3. “Hawa Dolo”
Two cuts from another duet album follow.
4. “Bi Lamban”
New Ancient Strings features Ballake Sissoko. There is an amazing back story to this album. Toumani and Ballake are the sons of two men who together brought the kora into the world of modern African music.
In the early seventies, Sidiki Diabate and Djelimadi Sissoko collaborated on an album called Cordes Anciennes, which became required listening for kora players interested in the future of the instrument.
New Ancient Strings was a daunting undertaking especially so because their fathers were not only considered the greatest kora players in memory but Cordes Anciennes had set the standard for kora recordings. So here you have the sons of masters doing a collaboration that mirrors the classic recording their fathers made. The upshot of the endeavor is that the the sons succeeded in carrying forth a cultural expression engendered by their fathers.
The third album is close to my second favorite of the recent material, Boulevard De L’independence featuring Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra. Not since Fela’s afrobeat aggregations have I been so smitten by a large African ensemble. The voices, the rhythms, the strings, the arrangements, everything, everything is beautiful.
I’ve chosen four stirring tracks:
7. “Tapha Niang”
9. “Mali Sadio”
This is truly an ensemble recording with ample room given to Toumani’s band mates. How one obtains the vision to move from a solo instrument to creating a multifaceted orchestra and to do so with such insouciant élan is beyond me. Toumani is a genius.
The fourth and final album is the new, Grammy-nominated solo recording, The Mande Variations. How important is this recording? Well, let’s see. I would rank it with Kind Of Blue, What’s Going On and A Love Supreme. Yes, as far as contemporary kora music goes, this album is just that important.
It’s not a matter of technique, even though Toumani could probably outplay most other kora players even if Toumani had one hand proverbially tied behind his back. Although he can jet, Toumani’s approach relies more on sensitivity than on speed, more on note placement and employment of strategic syncopations than on locking into a simple groove. In fact, an apt comparison is that other kora players are land animals (lions, cheetahs, even elephants and such) while Toumani is the mythic Sankofa bird—drawing on ancient traditions as he flies into the future.
Listen to Toumani’s phrasing, hear how the ripples of his notes flow and float almost as if they were acts of nature like wind or ocean waves rather than the result of dexterous finger work. I feel like I’m babbling but if you are listening to Toumani you know what both inspires and impels me.
I’ve only included two tracks from The Mande Variations.
10. “Si naani”
11. “Ali Farka Toure”
Do I need to tell you that you need this album?
One final observation, the last track is a homage to Toumani’s deeply respected colleague, Ali Farka Toure, and as such it is an excellent benediction to a set of futuristic traditional-based Malian music, which is, well, I’m sure you remember what I said at the beginning of this brief and hopelessly inadequate essay.
As it was in the beginning, so it is and will ever be at the end.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Monday, February 23rd, 2009 at 2:27 pm and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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