Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Toumani Diabate: The Mandé Variations

Simon Broughton reviews Toumani Diabaté's The Mandé Variations.
The West African kora is a felicitous combination of calabash gourd, cowskin and fishing line. In the hands of the Malian virtuoso Toumani Diabaté, it not only looks cool, but sounds sensational. And the title of Diabaté's new solo album, The Mandé Variations, suggests music to sit beside The Goldberg Variations or anything else in the canon of western music.

Listen to the lengthy opening track, "Si naani", and you hear an instrument that is indeed the equal of a piano, with a bass, middle-parts and a dreamy melody on the top. The 21 nylon strings are arranged in two vertical rows and are played with just the forefinger and thumb of each hand. The lines of music weave and intertwine in a continuous flow that grows and develops organically. It is helped on The Mandé Variations by a gloriously clear sound that would delight Alfred Brendel or Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The music of Toumani Diabaté is both captivating and puzzling, with an unmistakably courtly feel to it. Indeed, one of the first kora recitals in the UK, involving both Toumani and his father, Sidiki Diabaté, who came to perform at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 1987, was part of a BBC concert series called Music of the Royal Courts. The court in question was that of the Mandé empire, which flourished in West Africa between the 13th and 15th centuries.
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