Toumani Diabaté likes to talk. I didn't try it, but it may very well be possible to interview him simply by saying, "Go."
What comes out is a detailed and rich telling of his family history, a dose of African history, and a lot of background on the kora, the West African harp he plays with astounding and perhaps even unprecedented virtuosity.
Pitchfork: Could you start by giving us a little background on the kora?
Toumani Diabaté: Well, the Mandinka Empire was about 700 years ago in West Africa. It was like nine or 10 countries together in the Empire. The kora came from there about 700 years ago. It's made with a special gourd called the calabash and cow skin and it has twenty-one strings.
The players were from the griot families. They carried on the memory of the Mandinka Empire, because 700 years ago there was now writing in books. They were there to talk about Mandinka history.
Pitchfork: So it was oral history.
TD: Yes. It was translated [handed down] father to son, father to son, father to son...That's why I became the 71st generation kora player in my family. The kora technically is three octaves, and you play it at the bridge with four fingers. It has basically three possibilities: you can play the bass line, you can play the melody, and also you can improvise with both at the same time. Only the kora can do that.
The kora is very important for the Mandinka people. You can play it with any kind of instruments in any kind of style. It's gorgeous, it's a perfect, complete instrument, normally played acoustic.
Pitchfork: Your parents were both musicians in the Ensemble National Instrumental.
TD: Yes, my mother and father were great musicians. I was born in the 1960s, when my country, Mali, got independence-- I don't call it independence, because my country doesn't need someone to say it's independent.
[But] this was when they formed the national ensembles-- traditional band[s] with all the traditional instruments: the balafon, the ngoni, the kora, and the women with the bright voices. The men were singing also. So my parents were in the ensemble and they couldn't get time to teach me. So I was listening to my father's tapes and recordings of my grandfather and also Western music. From that, I taught myself to play while going to school to learn how to read and write.
Pitchfork: So you were hearing all this traditional and non-traditional music. How did that affect what you taught yourself?
TD: I was teaching myself the traditional music and also...I had a dream when I was young. At that time I was hearing Otis Redding, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix. So, my dream was to try to play this music with the kora. I'm happy to say today that this worked very good. I've done different projects with Taj Mahal, the prophet of blues, Ali Farka Toure-- I won a Grammy Award with him-- the Spanish musicians in Ketama, and Björk. So my dream is really here.
I didn't want the Western people to say "Oh!" when they're listening to the kora music [adopts patronizing tone] "This is so very nice." I wanted them to join with this music, and to play with this music, because music has been created as its own language, you know? The "G" on the kora is the same "G" that's on a piano. It's the same "G" that Carlos Santana was playing. The "B" on the kora is the same as the one that the hip hop people have.
Pitchfork: So after collaborating with so many people from so many places, do you look for something specific in a potential collaborator?
TD: I'm happy to be this kind of open musician. I'm not just playing for the beer or the whiskey, you know? My music has a history and a legend. My music has a geography. It's for peace and love and culture, and I think it's for communication. I think the best way to communicate today is the music. So I really want to know, today, how come the kora is not in Hollywood? How come it's not in hip hop? That's my dream today.
So if you're open and you have any connection to that, just put it on. I'm ready to do it. Because I think that people need to know that African-American people, they have another thought about Africa. Today is not time to say anymore about the slavery and people being deported from Africa to the U.S., to London, to Jamaica. That's the past right? So we have now to move on and be together and collaborate. It's not right for people to give time to killing themselves with drugs because they lost everything in the past.
My father told me, he said "Look, son, the only one in the world today who doesn't have any enemy is the money, because everyone wants money. It's important that people come together, because if you make a lot of money, finally you will lose something in you. You will lose your culture. It's no good, because money can't do everything." Everybody wants money, but, when my father talked, the money talked also. [laughs] He said, "But the money just says, 'Nobody looked after me. I'm here, I'm the money, but nobody looked after me.' We did everything for money, but money couldn't get everything."
It's time to communicate between people and between the nations. That's the best thing.
Pitchfork: You've been playing with the Symmetric Orchestra for years now, but you've only recorded with them last year. Is communication why you finally chose to record with them? Was it time to communicate?
TD: It's a 20-year-old project, and I'm happy that it works, because it's the only band in Africa today that has musicians coming form different towns and countries and talking in one language-- that's the music. Like I said, it has a history.
Pitchfork: But as far touring with the band and taking it on the road for the first time, what communication have you been getting in response from the audiences?
TD: Touring... I've been doing it for about 20 years with different people. Touring is good, but the main time is after the show, when people come to me and say, "Your music touched me." That's really important. In Ottawa, after my concert at a folk festival I had a man and his family approach me and they said that when their daughter was born, they were looking for a name to give to her. Finally, they took the name of my song and they gave it to their daughter. They brought a picture to me. I've been seeing people crying at the concerts because of the music and when I talk about the history and how we play together. People will come to me and say, "Thank you so much."
Pitchfork: So as you communicate outward, what are you hearing from other musicians you're hearing as you travel the world? Have you heard anything in particular that stands out?
TD: Well, at a festival-- most of the concerts were at festivals-- you give and you learn. It's like if you're thirsty and you want to drink, you go to the store to buy water. You can't drink the whole bottle in the store, and the music is like that. You can't say "I'm finished with the music." I started playing when I was five years old. You can't know everything about music. You're always in the middle. I think it's not only music that's like that, but life for a human being is like that all the time. So when I go to a festival, I give from my heart, but also I learn from other musicians.
Pitchfork: So is that also part of the appeal of collaborating with other musicians? Like, when you play with Bjork, she learns from you and you learn form her?
TD: Yeah. Collaborating with different musicians from different culture is the same thing. I'm happy to do that, because they have something to say and I have something to say, and when we put that together, it's just happenin' and hopefully the people will love it.
Pitchfork: In your notes on your last album, Boulevard de l'Independence, you mention that you've been recording the Symmetric Orchestra during its residency at the Hogon in Bamako? What do you use those recordings for?
TD: Well, the Hogon Club for me is a laboratory. We play there every Friday night and people come from around Mali, but also foreign people, and if I compose a song, we play it to check how the people feel this music. And if it goes well with the people, we keep the song and it gets more exciting. When the foreign people come, also, there are no constraints. I tell them, "Play what you like." That's the way we work there.
Pitchfork: So was it different when you went into a studio to record the Symmetric Orchestra?
TD: The recording was live, so not different, really. I don't like to talk much about the project.
Pitchfork: Have you been working on other things since then, besides touring?
TD: Of course the Symmetric Orchestra is still a big project for me now. But twenty years ago I released my first solo album, Kaira, and I just finished to make another solo album, which is being released next year.
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