This latest episode in the musical development of the great kora player Toumani Diabaté emphasises some of the most important elements of musical practice in Mali. The Griot tradition in Mali values history, lineage and family and Toumani is both the son and grandson of significant kora players. Further to that, he collaborates here with his son Sidiki, well known in Mali as a hip hop artist but also an impressive kora player in his own right. Toumani & Sidiki is a collection of beautiful music that brings home both the skills and the values passed down through the generations.
World Circuit have clearly not forgotten the huge impact of Toumani’s duets with the late Ali Farka Toure, and are probably hoping that Toumani & Sidiki might repeat that success. This is a very different work, however. Recorded at RAK studios in London with very minimal rehearsal and no overdubs, it’s a remarkably intimate, warm and sympathetic set of performances, with superbly executed themes accompanied by escapist, thrilling improvisation.
It is also one of the best headphones albums in some time. With Toumani’s kora in the left channel and Sidiki’s in the right, it is possible for listeners less familiar with the instrument or indeed the musicians to distinguish the contributions of both father and son. These are performances that favour dialogue and exchange over individual accomplishment, however, and whilst there are moments of sublime virtuosity, the lingering impression is of a close and powerful relationship that resonates strongly through these pieces. What is most fascinating about this music is how the parts fit together. Father and son weave an intricate and fascinatingly detailed web, the various threads coiling around each other with a simultaneous delicacy and resilience. The kora seems to be an instrument tailor made for a duo format, and it is easy to get absorbed in the variety of approaches to playing it, both as an accompanying and lead instrument.
It begins playfully and strikingly. Hamadoun Toure has a spare and enchanting simplicity, and a sprightly melody with a nursery rhyme-esque quality to it. It’s a joyful and life affirming opening, but perhaps not entirely representative of this collection as a whole. The other pieces retain a strong melodic impetus, but often articulate this in a more reflective, less outwardly exuberant way. The delightfully touching Rachid Ouigini is a case in point, whilst Claudia & Salma is disarmingly delicate (at its outset it feels thin almost to the point of being threadbare) but later expands with some of the album’s most thrilling and nimble improvisation. It’s a beautiful exhibition of musicality and control.
The song titles here, with their poignant references to important people, places and events in Malian culture, suggest this is not purely an album capturing those family ties that bind, but also a major work casting a wide eye over the bigger picture. In the face of Mali’s recent political and social upheavals, Toumani and Sidiki attempt to articulate a more positive vision of their home country. Sometimes this feels passionate and celebratory, but it’s always delivered with the lightest of touches (the airy, dancing feel of Dr Cheikh Modibo Diarra). At others, it’s a more restrained, sober reflection on Mali’s situation, offering significant recognition for figures who have helped or drawn attention to important issues on the world stage. This is a vital album for anyone interested in how musical traditions are disseminated, absorbed and reinvented.