Although he comes from a long line of musicians and has been recording since the mid-’80s, it is only in the last few years that master kora player Toumani Diabaté has impacted on a Western audience.
Hailing from Mali in Western Africa, Diabaté is one of the most acclaimed kora players to emerge from the region. A brief introduction to the kora is necessary here. A 21-string instrument similar in tone to the harp and lute and synonymous with Western Africa, the kora looks like an oversize banjo, is made out of a calabash gourd, cow skin and fishing line, and is played in the sitting position.
The Mandé Variations is only Diabaté’s second solo album in a 20-year recording career, and is a belated follow-up to his 1988 recording Kaira. That album caused quite a flutter among Western critics, but following its release Diabaté embarked on an eclectic recording career that has seen him recording with flamenco groups, American blues musician Taj Mahal, avant jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, and also helping out on Björk‘s 2007 album Volta. Diabaté has also worked with his own Symmetric Orchestra and collaborated with fellow Malian Ali Farka Touré on 2005’s In The Heart Of The Moon, picking up a Grammy Award for the latter.
The Mandé Variations shows the influence of Diabaté’s musical wanderings, embracing a broader range of inspirations than Kaira (while also revisiting several melodies from that album). Where Kaira saw Diabaté sticking closely to Malian folk music, here he draws so freely from other sources that African and Western forms blend into a seamless whole.
The opening Si Naani is a stunning 10-minute display of virtuoso playing that swings as freely as any jazz quartet and is, if anything, too short. Elyne Road takes its title from a street in London and moves effortlessly from a ballad opening into a complex flurry of polyrhythms.
Diabaté pays homage to the late Ali Farka Touré on the third track, although his lightning quick, improvised runs may be a little too overwhelming for some Western ears. Kaouding Cissoko, dedicated to the late Senegalese kora player, is more effective as Diabaté breathes new life into the Gambian kora classic Alla L’a Ke with an energetic and technically stunning performance.
The bluesy Ismael Drame is the most traditional piece on the album and rings out with a melodic tone that is reminiscent at times of John Williams. Djourou Kara Nany is a spare, gentle piece that allows Diabaté room to breathe before we are cast headlong into the improvisational maelstrom of El Nabiyouna.
The album closes with Cantelowes, which segues from a rather corny Ennio Morricone quote into a new interpretation on the Diaraby melody (referenced by Diabaté on many of his albums) that branches out into delightful melodic variations.
Recorded in only two hours with no overdubs, The Mandé Variations puts many Western musicians to shame. Tribute must be paid to World Circuit producers Nick Gold and Jerry Boys, whose recording of the session captures every little nuance of Diabaté’s playing.