“Beethoven passed away 250 years ago, but the music I’m playing is way older than that” | Toumani Diabaté on his album with the London Symphony Orchestra
The pre-eminent Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté talks to Simon Broughton about his special one-off collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra
Toumani Diabaté (photo: Lars Opstad)
“African classical music is older than people think,” says Toumani Diabaté. “Beethoven passed away 250 years ago, but the music I’m playing is way older than that, although Western people don’t know it. That’s why we’ve called this album Kôrôlén [Ancestral].” It’s true. Mali’s griot tradition of hereditary musicians goes right back to Sunjata Keita in the 13th century, although the harp-like kora that Toumani plays is a more recent innovation.
This new album was recorded live with the London Symphony Orchestra, with several of Toumani’s compositions arranged by Ian Gardiner and Nico Muhly for kora (along with other Malian instruments) and 30 orchestral musicians. “It’s very nice to play with an orchestra and it’s the first time I’ve done it,” he says. “I always wanted to bring the kora up a level and I think this project has done that, so I’m very proud of it. It’s continuing along the path of In the Heart of the Moon, the album I recorded with Ali Farka Touré.”
Toumani doesn’t usually undervalue his talents or his instrument, but African musicians are often considered as poor relations when compared to the Western classical tradition. They shouldn’t be of course, and maybe this album will help.
Kôrôlén starts with solo kora, before the orchestra enters virtually imperceptibly with soft string tones to fill out the sound. As the opening track, ‘Haïnamady Town’, builds, orchestrator Gardiner picks out counter melodies on the oboe and they weave a soft counterpoint. “Many Western people think African music is only dance music, but Africa also has its classical music, which is older than Bach,” says Toumani. “This album is 50% Western music, 50% African music and our countries need this kind of collaboration. It’s a revolution that shows the way.”
‘Haïnamady Town’ is important for Toumani as it celebrates the Algerian town of Aïn Madhi where Ahmad al-Tijani, the founder of the Tijaniyya Sufis, was born in 1735. Toumani is a follower. “The whole world is suffering from terrorism, but it’s not right. If you want to be a Muslim, be a Muslim; if you want to be a Christian, be a Christian, but don’t kill people. To believe is your business, but how many people must pass away in the Sahara?”
Most of the tracks are slow, but ‘Moon Kaira’, which harks back to Toumani’s first album, has a faster syncopated feel with a bubbling balafon, the xylophone-like instrument that really does date back to the Mande Empire in the 13th century. There’s also ngoni (lute), electric and acoustic guitar, calabash and talking drum, all accompanying the amassing string melodies. The final track includes vocals from one of Mali’s great vocalists, Kasse Mady Diabaté, who died in 2018. They are appropriately mirrored by an orchestral horn bringing a similar burnished tone.
The Barbican concert where this was recorded took place in 2008, though the album is only just being released by World Circuit. There have been two kora concertos since, with Mamadou Cissokho and with Tunde Jegede, but Toumani believes this was the first. What’s more, the arrangements don’t seem to have tied Toumani down too much and he seems very pleased with how easy it was to do. “We and the orchestra had never met before. We had just a one-hour rehearsal on stage at the Barbican Centre, one take, a live recording and it’s an album!” he chuckles.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!