Posts Tagged ‘mali’

Toumani Diabaté: a beginner’s guide

Posted on November 7th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .

Toumani Diabaté (photo by Simon Rawles)

Toumani Diabaté (photo by Simon Rawles)

The kora has become almost synonymous with the music of Mali. Nigel Williamson examines the career of its chief exponent Toumani Diabaté

Only a tiny handful of rarely gifted musicians achieve the status of becoming synonymous with the instrument they play. You cannot say the word ‘violin’ without thinking of Yehudi Menuhin. Say ‘cello’ and the name of Jacqueline du Pré instantly comes to mind. And any mention of classical guitar invariably conjures the name of Segovia. Even in death, these musicians continue to define the acme of perfection on their chosen instruments.

In world music, Astor Piazzolla and the Argentinian bandoneón and Ravi Shankar and the Indian sitar come to mind as examples of the same phenomenon. It’s about more than mere virtuosity. It’s as if these musicians have turned their instruments not only into an expression of their own personality but also, by some miraculous metaphysical transformation, into an extension of their corporeal being in which the music is mysteriously channelled through them. And among these extraordinary names we must count Toumani Diabaté, the wizard of the 21-string West African harp/lute, known as the kora.

All of these great musicians combine technical mastery with an intuitive emotional feel for the music. But perhaps above all, their music transcends the vagaries of fad and fashion. There’s an ineffable sense that they are not merely making music for their own time, but for eternity.

It’s a quality that Toumani Diabaté understands perfectly. “Many CDs are for one or two years,’’ he reasons. ‘‘I don’t want to do that in my life. I want to record something that can last for a long, long time.”

And he has every justification for that claim. Born in Bamako in 1965, his music belongs to a tradition that stretches back 700 years. Allegedly the 71st generation of kora players in his family, he was born into a caste of griots, the professional hereditary musicians with a lineage that can be traced back to the days when the Mande empire ruled West Africa. His father Sidike Diabaté was the leading player of his era and, although Toumani proudly claims to be self-taught, there’s no doubting that he learnt a huge amount by growing up in such a tradition and watching and hearing his father play on a daily basis.

‘‘His technique was putting the three functions together: bass line, melody and improvisation,’’ Toumani has said of his father. “When you listen, it’s like three men playing at the same time and I learned the kora that way.’’

Traditionally the kora was used to accompany singers but Toumani has also dramatically expanded its scope and – while remaining true to its traditions – has effectively created a new musical language for the instrument.

His ability to operate in different musical contexts echoes Shankar’s expansive approach to the sitar, which encompassed both the strictly classical and groundbreaking fusions with the likes of Menuhin and George Harrison. Similarly, Toumani can play in an intellectually austere – although still overwhelmingly beautiful – traditional Mande style. But as a bold and innovative musical visionary and fusionist, he has also shared stages and studios with the London Symphony Orchestra, Björk, Damon Albarn, the American bluesman Taj Mahal, Herbie Hancock, Spanish flamenco band, Ketama, Cuban veterans from Buena Vista Social Club and recorded with his own thoroughly modern West African big band, the Symmetric Orchestra.

His debut album, Kaira, was recorded in a single afternoon in London in 1987 when he was just 22 years old and was notable as the first instrumental album featuring only solo kora. His willingness to experiment was evident when a year later he teamed up with Ketama to record the groundbreaking kora-flamenco fusions of Songhai, a collaboration so successful that it was repeated on Songhai 2 (1994).

Back in Bamako, he gathered around him some fine traditional musicians and his second ‘solo’ album, 1995’s Djelika, was altogether different from his debut, putting the kora in the middle of a traditional Mande ensemble of balafon and the ngoni, with added Western double bass from Danny Thompson and Ketama’s Javier Colina.

In 1999 came New Ancient Strings, an album of kora duets with Ballaké Sissoko, the son of another great kora player, Djelimady Sissoko, who played and recorded with Toumani’s father. That same year saw the release of Toumani’s Grammy awardwinning collaboration with the American bluesman Taj Mahal on Kulanjan, a record which explored the common ground between the African-American blues and the musical traditions of Mali, and which Barack Obama named as a favourite during the 2008 election presidential election campaign.

Another Malian musician who explored the links between the blues and African music was the late great guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Toumani and Ali recorded two Grammy-winning albums together towards the end of Ali’s life and Toumani also went on to record with Ali’s son, Vieux Farka Touré.

Away from his own albums, you may wish to explore Toumani’s potent guest appearances on Damon Albarn’s Mali Music (Honest Jon’s, 2002), Björk’s Volta (One Little Indian, 2007) and his more central role on AfroCubism (World Circuit, 2010).

A spellbinding beauty characterises all of Toumani’s music, which makes it fine entertainment and a soothing background accessory. But it’s far more than that, too, for this is also music of extraordinary complexity and rigour that demands close attention and concentration. ‘‘When I make a record, it is like a book,’’ Toumani insists. ‘‘It’s an education about music, tradition, culture… and the world needs that.’’ 

ancient-stringsNew Ancient Strings (Hannibal, 1999) with Ballaké Sissoko

In 1970, Sidiki Diabaté and his friend Djelimady Sissoko made a landmark album of kora duets titled Ancient Strings. Nearly three decades later, producer Lucy Durán brought together their sons Toumani and Ballaké to record ‘Round Two.’




heart-of-the-moonIn the Heart of the Moon (World Circuit, 2005) with Ali Farka Touré

The meeting of Africa’s finest guitarist and the world’s greatest kora player lived up to expectations on a joyous album which married two different traditions of Malian music in an effortless, unrehearsed meeting of string magic.





boulevard-de-lindependanceBoulevard de l’Indépendance (World Circuit, 2005)

Toumani’s big band the Symmetric Orchestra played a weekly jam session at Bamako’s Hogon club for years, prior to going into the studio to record. Riotous horns, fierce percussion and the great voice of Kassé Mady Diabaté complement Diabaté’s characteristically inspired kora playing.



the-mande-variationsThe Mande Variations (World Circuit, 2008)

Toumani’s first solo and unaccompanied kora album in 20 years. Hauntingly beautiful and meditative, the graceful improvisations have a classical elegance that makes it not too fanciful to think of the album as Africa’s equivalent of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.




ali-toumaniAli & Toumani (World Circuit, 2010) with Ali Farka Touré

Recorded over three days in London in 2005, the pair arguably topped the achievement of In the Heart of the Moon. There’s still plenty of improvisation, but as Toumani says, ‘‘the sound and the idea is clearer.”





toumani-sidikiToumani & Sidiki (World Circuit, 2014)

The Diabaté kora legacy continues with this father and son collaboration. Enriched in history and diversity, this is a vivid tapestry that awakens the senses.







Enjoy our ‘Quintessential kora’ playlist on Apple Music:

This article originally appeared in Songlines #76. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit:

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Mali: discover the music

Posted on November 3rd, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .


Today, Mali remains a wellspring of extraordinary music and culture. Here is our essential guide to Malian music, including revealing articles about leading musicians, from Ali Farka Touré to Songhoy Blues and Toumani Diabaté, and videos of exciting live performances. But we begin with an overview of the key artists and albums…



After much deliberation, we are proud to present the top 25 albums to come from Mali, reminding us that there is an endless amount to celebrate in its music.

Read the article: ‘Top 25 Mali albums’



Songhoy Blues won the Newcomer category in the Songlines Music Awards 2016. Hailed last year as ‘Mali’s Next Big Thing’, the young band have continued to ride on a much-deserved wave of success.

Read the article: ‘Songhoy Blues: Songhai Stars’ 



Recorded shortly before his death in 2006, Ali Farka Touré’s Savane took him to new heights of critical acclaim. “Absolutely perfect – a truly great piece of work,” was the judgement of Ry Cooder and it’s impossible to find a single voice raised in disagreement.

Read the article: ‘Ali Farka Touré: a beginner’s guide’



The South African guitarist Derek Gripper is intent on bringing new audiences to Mali’s kora repertoire. Simon Broughton talks to him, on his first visit to the country to meet the instrument’s most famous player.

Read the article: ‘Derek Gripper: kora quest’



Is it possible for any article about Amadou & Mariam not to include the words ‘blind married couple’ in the opening sentence? There, I’ve just gone and done it again. It is an odd kind of badging when we’re talking about musical communication that, after all, engages our ears rather than our eyes. As Mariam puts it, “People know we are blind, but it is our work that counts”.

Read the article: ‘Amadou & Mariam: a beginner’s guide’



The young Touareg band are striking out from under Tinariwen’s shadow and doing their own thing. Andy Morgan reports…

Read the article: ‘Introducing… Imarhan’



Nigel Williamson speaks to the Malian singer about her career, which has been dedicated to offering African women a voice and correcting gender inequalities.

Read the article: ‘Oumou Sangaré: a beginner’s guide’



The kora has become almost synonymous with the music of Mali. Nigel Williamson examines the career of its chief exponent Toumani Diabaté

Read the article: ‘Toumani Diabaté: a beginner’s guide’

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Oumou Sangaré: a beginner’s guide

Posted on October 28th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .


Nigel Williamson speaks to the Malian singer about her career, which has been dedicated to offering African women a voice and correcting gender inequalities

The moment that shaped Oumou Sangaré’s career occurred when she was just two years old. With her mother pregnant and struggling to bring up a brood of small children, Oumou’s father took a second wife, abandoned his family in Bamako and emigrated to the Ivory Coast. His desertion sank her mother, who made her living singing at weddings and baptisms, into a deep depression. But it also made her “a fighter,” a quality Oumou inherited along with her mother’s singing talent. At five years old she was singing with her and by the age of 13, she had become the family’s main breadwinner. “That’s what has given me strength in my life,” she says. “It was a very hard childhood and it gave me an incredible character. I can face up to any obstacle.”

The experience also informed her music and throughout her career she has used her songs as campaigning tools to improve the position of women in Mali and to oppose polygamy, child marriage and a system that defines a ‘good wife’ as a submissive woman. “Ever since I was a kid, I promised myself that one day when I have the kilos – when I can toss my weight around – I will scream about this problem to the whole world,” she said.

It was no coincidence then that her first album was titled Moussolou (which means ‘Women’); or that her next album included a song titled ‘Dugu Kamalemba’ (which translates as ‘The Skirt-chaser’); or that the title of her third album, Worotan (meaning ‘Ten Kola Nuts’), was a reference to the price of a bride in an arranged marriage.

She also wrote ‘Magnoumako’ (Agony) about her mother’s suffering, “how she wept, how she was marginalised, how she was ignored, how she struggled.” The song appeared on the 2003 two-disc anthology, Oumou. ‘How can an African woman hear that song without crying?’ she asks in the album’s sleeve notes.

“Women have a hard time in Africa. We have no voice; our men do all our talking for us,” she says. “My role is to speak directly to women both through my songs and setting an example and showing them that they can make their own decisions. I was the first one who started to speak out about correcting the inequalities and injustice that women still endure in Mali.”

Six foot tall, stylishly elegant, feisty and charismatic with a soulful, soaring voice, Oumou makes a striking role model. Born in 1969, her parents came from Wassoulou, a remote wooded region in southern Mali, which also straddles the borders of the Ivory Coast and Guinea. The area also boasts a rich and distinctive culture based around the special place in village life afforded to the traditional caste of hunters, whose music, played on the six-string donso ngoni harp, is believed to have magic powers.

Its hypnotic dance rhythms play a large part in Oumou’s music, although her recordings use the instrument’s higher-pitched non-ritual version, the kamelengoni, as she sings in the Wassoulou style known as koni (songbird), quite different from the griot tradition.

After joining the Djoliba Percussion band with whom she toured Europe in 1986 – and which also included in its line-up a young Toumani Diabaté – she recorded her debut album in the Ivory Coast at the age of 20. On its release in 1990, Moussolou was a sensation in Mali, selling more than 100,000 copies on cassette – and proving highly controversial, both for her espousal of women’s rights and the song ‘Diaraby Nene’ (The Shivers of Love), which shocked a highly-conservative society with its erotic expression of female sensuality.

“People couldn’t believe my music. They would say ‘what she sings about is heavy… she’s denouncing polygamy, she’s encouraging women to stand up to their husbands, she’s got guts’,” Oumou told musicologist Lucy Durán. “It was a kind of music revolution. Every household in Bamako had a copy of that record and my mother was so happy she cried.”

The album was released outside Europe a year later on World Circuit, after the label’s owner Nick Gold heard the record during a trip to Bamako. “You couldn’t escape that music and you didn’t want to,” he elaborates. “It was everywhere. As soon as you left a café where they were playing it, the baton was taken up by a passing car and then the next market stall. I spent a week in Bamako hearing Oumou wherever I went.”

It was the beginning of a long association with World Circuit for whom she went on to record three further albums between 1993 and 2009, the long gaps between record releases due in large part to an exhausting schedule.

On the international stage she won the UNESCO Prize, became an ambassador for the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation, collaborated and recorded with Béla Fleck and Dee Dee Bridgewater, duetted live on French TV with Alicia Keys and featured on the soundtrack of Beloved, the film based on Toni Morrison’s novel and starring Oprah Winfrey.

At home she built a significant business empire, owning and running a hotel (L’Hôtel Résidence Wassulu, conveniently located on the road from Bamako to its international airport), launching a range of 4×4 pick-ups and SUVs called the Oum Sang in partnership with a Chinese manufacturer and marketing Oumou Sangaré Rice, grown in her own fields.

Having left World Circuit after more than 20 years together, Oumou recently announced that she had signed to the French label No Format!, which will release her first new studio album in eight years in 2017.



(World Circuit, 1991)

The stunning debut that sparked a musical revolution in Mali and introduced her to the world. Recently reissued in a deluxe edition on 180-gram vinyl and on CD in a hardback case with a 32-page booklet.

Ko Sira

(World Circuit, 1993)

A brilliant follow-up that confirmed the arrival of one of Africa’s great voices on a set that gets the balance just right between Western guitar and bass and traditional West African instrumentation.


(World Circuit, 1996)

This is an exquisitely sensitive Nick Gold production, the African musicians are augmented by Pee Wee Ellis’ horn arrangements on four tracks and a lovely Nitin Sawhney cameo on acoustic guitar on the meditative closer ‘Djortolen’.


(World Circuit, 2009)

Surprisingly this was the first of Oumou’s international albums to be recorded at home in Bamako – and after a 13-year gap since Worotan, it’s also the most sophisticated and mature set of her career to date. A Top of the World in #58.



(World Circuit, 2003)

A two-disc career retrospective, containing a dozen of the best tracks from her first three albums plus eight new songs never previously released on CD, including her moving tribute to her mother on ‘Magnoumako’. A Top of the World in #21.

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They Will Have to Kill Us First OST: Exclusive Album Stream

Posted on September 14th, 2016 in News, Recent posts by .

They Will Have to Kill us First

Listen to an exclusive stream of the original soundtrack for the film They Will Have to Kill Us, which will be released this Friday

Johanna Schwartz’s mesmerising documentary, They Will Have to Kill Us First, follows the plight of musicians caught up in Mali’s socio-political tragedy. The documentary has won plaudits worldwide, and has been credited with catapulting young Malian quartet Songhoy Blues onto the international stage.

Music is at the heart of Malian culture. The soundtrack features unreleased material from some of the country’s icons including Toumani Diabaté, Bombino and Ali Farka Touré, as well as original compositions from Yeah Yeah Yeah’s frontman, Nick Zinner, who produced Songhoy Blues’ acclaimed debut record.

Enjoy the album in full below.

The album is released Friday, September 16 on Transgressive Records. Pre-order your copy.

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