Words by Nigel Williamson
The kora is an age-old instrument, rich in history, yet its promotion as a solo instrument is relatively recent. This is only the third album of kora duets ever recorded, and all three have involved the Diabaté family. Toumani’s father Sidiki recorded the first, Ancient Strings, with Djelimady Sissoko in 1970. Their two sons Toumani and Ballaké Sissoko followed with New Ancient Strings in 1997. Now Toumani has teamed up with his son Sidiki on an album produced by Nick Gold and Lucy Durán. It’s brimming with burnished melodies and virtuoso playing and the production is pristine. Yet perhaps the most impressive aspect is the sheer diversity of the sonic palette.
We think of the kora as possessing a distinctive trademark sound; but on almost every track here the instrument exhibits a markedly different nuance of tone, tuning, resonance, or harmonic character. On ‘Hamadoun Toure’, a century-old Gambian tune, the tinkling arpeggios take on a harpsichord-like sonority. It hardly sounds African at all and it certainly doesn’t sound remotely ancient; the work it most brings to mind is A Rainbow in Curved Air by minimalist Terry Riley. On ‘Lampedusa’, composed in memory of the 300 African migrants who died in the shipwreck off the Italian island in 2013, one of the koras rings like a classical guitar, while the other ripples like a Welsh harp. But who is playing what is impossible to discern, so intricately are the strings of father and son interwoven. Each piece is given a contrasting mood – reflective, energetic, hypnotic, dynamic – often conveyed by striking changes of rhythm or tempo. ‘Rachid Ouiguini’ and ‘Bagadaji Sirifoula’ are spritely. ‘Toguna Industries’ is stately and processional. The rhapsodic ‘Bansang’ evokes a more dream-like sensibility. Every note in this rich tapestry of strings is exquisitely calibrated in the pursuit of perfection.
Track to Try: ‘Hamadoun Toure’