It should come as little surprise that our list is topped by the sublime collaboration between the two most significant names in Malian music over the past quarter of a century. The individual recordings of both Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Touré feature high in the upper echelons of our list. But together they proved to be an unbeatable combination at number one.
Had they not made this second recording together, the accolade might easily have gone to their first collaboration, 2005’s Grammy-winning collaboration In the Heart of the Moon. Toumani himself hesitates to claim that the second album is a better record than its predecessor. Instead he describes it as ‘stronger and wiser,’ so let us settle for that. By the time the album was recorded in 2005, Ali was already ill with cancer and knew that he was dying. In the Heart of the Moon had been recorded the previous year at Bamako’s Hotel Mande, a romantic location on the banks of the Niger River. The follow-up was recorded over the course of three afternoons in the somewhat more prosaic surroundings of a North London studio and proved that their stringed magic transcended location and required no special circumstances beyond their own mutual inspiration. The diversity and intensity of the musical fantasia the two maestros fashioned together is breathtaking, with Toumani playing in seemingly bolder fashion than on their previous collaboration, as if he knew it was his final opportunity to work with one of Africa’s musical giants. Ali’s playing, too, is imbued with a profound soulfulness, as if he was determined to pour all the sagacity of a lifetime into what he knew would be his final recording. The intuitive understanding between them dips deep into the well of Mali’s rich and vibrant musical history.
The elegant ‘Ruby’ opens the album, Toumani’s fluid kora arpeggios spilling rapturously over Ali’s pulse-like guitar. ‘Sabu Yerkoy’ is sprightlier, with a gentle vocal from Ali underpinned by a simple, joyous bass line from Cuba’s Cachaito López, who also passed away not long after these recordings.
‘Warbé’, ‘Samba Geladio’ and ‘Machengoidi’ are deep excursions into the desert blues. ‘Bé Mankan’ is full of classical grace and poise, while ‘Doudou’ is more playful. ‘Fantasy’ is a lullaby of exquisite sweetness, while the closer ‘Kala Djula’ is perhaps the album’s most enchanting tune. At the very end of the record, Ali’s voice says simply ‘Eh, voilà.’ It’s a poignant farewell, as if he’s telling us that he’s done his utmost and there’s nothing left to say. He lost his battle against cancer nine months after the recording and the album was not released until 2010, three years after his death in March 2007. As a summit meeting between West Africa’s two mightiest musical masters, it’s a collaboration of virtuosic perfection and understanding, a master class in which the two friends spur, inspire and encourage each other to a creative pinnacle of monumental elevation. ‘Eh, voilà’ indeed.