TOUMANI DIABATE: The 71st generation bard

An in depth interview with Toumani Diabate, the kora maestro of Mali, about his band the Symmetric Orchestra, his club The Hogon, and his griot ancestry

A smiling Toumani DiabateOne of the ideas that seems to have suffered in our turntablized and booze-warehoused culture, is that of the band residency.  There was a time when a hungry combo could sharpen its performance skills, widen its fan base and work out its musical mission slowly but surely in the same dark juke joint, on the same night, week after week, month after month, even year after year.  The concept is still alive and well in Africa however.  Take Le Hogon for example, a club in the Ntomikorobougou district of the Malian capital Bamako.  Every Friday night, for the past decade and a half, the uncontested master of the kora, Toumani Diabate, has been cooking up something special in the dimly lit and darkly relaxed confines of this musical laboratory or espace culturel, as its patrons like to call it.  With the release this month of ‘Boulevard de l’Independence’, the World Circuit label is lifting the lid off the crockpot and letting those slow cooked flavours pique the expectant nostrils of the world.

It seems that, in the sphere of West African music at least, all those sessions at Le Hogon may prove to be almost as important and creatively fruitful as those that made Minton’s Playhouse, The Cavern or The Cotton Club legendary in the spheres of jazz and British pop.  What Toumani Diabate has managed to achieve with patience and perseverance is a marriage between two distinct traditions, two musical philosophies, two worlds.  Or, to borrow a well turned metaphor, the traditional ‘high art’ world of the kora and the brash ‘hi-energy’ world of the Malian dance band have had a child, and they call it Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra.   It’s a revolutionary union, legitimised by the dazzling display of virtuosity and groove that characterises the new album, and no one was better placed mastermind it than Toumani Diabate.

Son of the great Sidiki Diabate, the father of the modern kora, Toumani is 71st in a direct line of griots that stretches back to the reign of the great medieval Emperor Sudjata Keita.  The griots are the hereditary musicians of West Africa, but their role has also involved a close relationship with those in power, to whom they have provided faithful service as oral historians, sages, advisors, ambassadors and ‘truth-sayers’.  Toumani was born in the mid sixties, a decade of speed and change in west Africa as it was in the rest of the world, so it’s hardly surprising that his reaction to the crushing weight of his ancestry was a mix of respect and resistance.  “It’s true that there was a conflict of generations between my father and I,” he admits.  “He was playing purely traditional music and that’s how I began too.  But the fact is that I went to school and got into Bad Company, Smokie, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and I said to myself that I would try to open a universal door for the kora.”

Toumani Diabate doesn’t lack pride in the illustrious lineage to which he belongs, or in its revered position at the cultural heart of the ancient Manding Empire, which ruled over most of West Africa until it lost power in the mid 19th Century.  In fact, the Symmetric Orchestra is a project underpinned by acute historical awareness.  “This album ‘Boulevard de l’Independence’ is a cultural reconstruction of the Manding Empire,” he explains.  “I’m trying to rebuild it, but in a cultural way.  It’s a meeting of different ethnicities and different generations.  And the music of the kora is at the centre of everything.”

The Boulevard de l’Independence is one of Bamako main thoroughfares, whose status matches that of Mall in London or the Champs Elysee in Paris.  Toumani sees it as the symbolic and geographical nexus of the old Empire.  “From there you can go to all the regions of the Manding Empire: Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mauritania…the whole territory”.  The Symmetric Orchestra grew in the sweltering Petri dish of Le Hogon as musicians from all over West Africa dropped by to jam with Toumani, adding their distinct touch to the burgeoning whole.  “The whole of West Africa, Manding Africa, is represented in the group,” Toumani asserts with pride.  “Once this whole region was the Malian Empire but the colonial powers split it up into different states.  That was a tragedy.  But we can reunite in culture, in music.”

In the past, Toumani’s immense reputation has rested on his ability to fuse and innovate.  In 1987, whilst in London, he recorded a classic album of solo kora music called ‘Kaira’.  The idea of the kora as a solo instrument was then quite new, and one that Toumani, with his absorbing virtuosity, helped to pioneer.  Since then he has soldered the kora sound to alien styles as varied as the new wave flamenco of Ketama, the blues of Taj Mahal, classical Indian Music and Rap.  Even his collaboration with the late great King of the African blues, Ali Farka Toure, on this year’s Grammy award winning ‘In the Heart Of The Moon’ was an exercise blending two previously non-aligned musical traditions.  Did he ever feel there was danger in this unrepentantly frontier-exploding approach?  “No there was no danger,” comes Toumani’s assured reply.  “Because I was never playing Indian music or Spanish music or American music.  I always played Malian music, Manding music.  I feel that it’s my duty to spread the message of the kora, and with more than 70 generations behind me, it’s a heavy responsibility.  And the kora only whispers Manding melodies.”    Toumani Diabate with his Kora

The sizzling beats of ‘Boulevard de l’Independence’, whose delicately balanced interplay of voices, horns, bass, drums, guitars, pounding percussion, balaphon, ngoni and kora mirrors the intricacies of the kora itself, are the latest salvo in the career of one who has always struggled to be both proudly traditional and recklessly modern at the same time.  This is the symmetry that Toumani is trying to achieve.  But this time round the idea is entirely his, and its execution has been long and painstaking.  In that sense ‘Boulevard de l’Independence’ is a genuinely personal and homegrown triumph.  Toumani best expresses the crucial impulse behind this whole adventure in a sentence hidden in his eloquent sleeve notes that accompany the album.  He explains that he mixed old and new styles and instruments “so that even if we move towards other cultures, we would always remain guardians of our own.”

‘Boulevard de l’Independence’ is the second of three albums to have come out of the already revered Mandé Hotel recording sessions, masterminded by World Circuit boss Nick Gold.  The first was ‘In the Heart Of The Moon’.  And the last, due for release later this year, will be Ali Farka Toure’s solo guitar swansong.  This groundbreaking triptych of work celebrates the life of the old master instrumentalist of Malian music, Ali Farka Toure, whilst anointing his successor, Toumani Diabate.  It is rumoured that Toumani was with Ali Farka, at his bedside, until just a few hours before his death.  “As soon as I arrived back from LA where I had accepted the Grammy on both our behalves,” he recounts, “I went straight to Ali’s place to pay homage to him.  Because, let’s face it, Ali has done everything for me.  He was the Lion of the Desert.  He will always be the greatest among the greatest!”

Andy Morgan.  (c) 2006
First published in The Independent, March 2006

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