Posts Tagged ‘toumani diabate’

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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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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Exclusive stream: Silk Road Ensemble – Ichichila

Posted on March 16th, 2016 in News, Recent posts by .


We are pleased to offer an exclusive stream of  ‘Ichichila’ from the forthcoming Silk Road Ensemble album, Sing Me Home, featuring Toumani Diabaté and Balla Kouyaté

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble return this April with Sing Me Home, the latest collection of recordings and collaborations from the Grammy award-nominated cross-cultural project. Founded by the world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Silk Road Ensemble has assembled an impressive cast of more than 70 performers and composers from 25 nations over the last 16 years. This new release attempts to tackle the perpetuity of ‘home’ as a tangible and evolving idea. Sing Me Home is also a companion album to Morgan Neville’s cri de coeur documentary, The Music of Strangers.

‘Ichichila’ features Malian musicians Toumani Diabaté (kora) and Balla Kouyaté (balafon), both regarded as the leading virtuosos of their craft. Arranged by percussionist Shane Shanahan, he first heard the composition in 2007 whilst working with primary school students where he ‘instantly fell in love with several elements of this song.’

Please click here to view the desktop version of the website if you cannot see the stream on mobile.

Find out more about the album in the May (#117) editionSing Me Home is released on April 22 on Sony Music Masterworks. The Music of Strangers is slated for theatrical release later this year. Pre-order Sing Me Home today on iTunes and Amazon.

Full tracklist:
1. ‘Green (Vincent’s Tune)’ (feat. Roomful of Teeth)
2. ‘O’Neill’s Cavalry March’ (feat. Martin Hayes)
3. ‘Little Birdie’ (feat. Sarah Jarosz)
4. ‘Ichichila’ (feat. Balla Kouyaté and Toumani Diabaté)
5. ‘Sadila Jana’ (feat. Black Sea Hotel)
6. ‘Shingashi Song’ (feat. Kaoru Watanabe)
7. ‘Madhoushi’ (feat. Shujaat Khan)
8. ‘Wedding’ (feat. Dima Orsho)
9. ‘Going Home’ (feat. Abigail Washburn)
10. ‘Cabaliño’ (feat. Davide Salvado, Anxo Pintos and Roberto
Comesaña of Rustica)
11. ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’ (feat. Rhiannon Giddens, Michael Ward-Bergeman, and Reylon Yount)
12. ‘If You Shall Return…’ (feat. Bill Frisell)
13. ‘Heart and Soul’ (feat. Gregory Porter and Lisa Fischer)

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Ali Farka Touré – a beginner’s guide

Posted on October 31st, 2015 in Features, Recent posts by .


An introduction to the great Malian blues guitarist, by Nigel Williamson

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. The album not only topped Songlines albums of the year but also nestled alongside Bob Dylan and the Arctic Monkeys in the lists in rock magazines Mojo and Uncut, the latter’s reviews editor taking time out from his unswerving passion for the White Stripes to rave about Ali’s ‘instinctual and wonderfully entrancing’ music. Savane even made the pop charts (admittedly its 30-something peak would have disappointed U2 but it was still higher than any African record since Ladysmith Black Mambazo were catapulted into the top 20 by a baked beans commercial).

Born in the village of Kanau on the banks of the River Niger in north-west Mali in 1939, when still a boy he moved down the river to Niafunke, where he lived on-and-off for the rest of his life. A devout Muslim, he also had a profound belief in the power of the djinns, or spirits, believed to inhabit the Niger river and as a boy was captivated by the traditional music played at village ceremonies to summon them. He made his first instrument, a one-string guitar known as a djerkel at the age o f 12, graduating to a borrowed six-string instrument in 1956. After years spent absorbing a vast repertoire of traditional music from different ethnic sources including Sonrai, Peul and Tamaschek, it was not until 1968 that he first heard American music when a friend in Bamako played him imported records by James Brown, Albert King and John Lee Hooker. He always insisted he was not influenced by them; merely struck by the similarities of blues and funk rhythms to West African music.

By the 70s, he had moved to Bamako, where he spent a decade working as an engineer for Radio Mali and recording regularly acoustic guitar recitals for the station. The best of these early recordings were later compiled on Radio Mali (World Circuit, 1996). Although the recording techniques are rudimentary, the tracks possess an undeniable power and in 1975, he sent tapes of them to the Son Afric label in Paris. A few months later his first recording appeared in France on vinyl LP. Over the next few years, the label released six more LPs, all recorded in Bamako. The original albums are now hard to find, but two of them, recorded in the early 80s, were later released as the two CD set Red & Green (World Circuit, 2004).

Yet by the 80s, Ali had virtually retired from professional music, returning to Niafunke to farm his land. It was only after he was famously tracked down by World Circuit’s Anne Hunt that he was persuaded in 1987 to play his first concerts outside Africa since a solitary appearance at a festival in Bulgaria in 1968.

While in London, he cut his first album to be recorded outside Mali. Although still sounding raw and earthy, Ali Farka Touré (1988) benefitted hugely from Nick Gold’s simple but sensitive production. It was followed by The River (1990), which found him rocking out on electric guitar on more than half the tracks and sounding harder-edged and bluesier than ever before. The Source (1992) was another advance, recorded with a full band and including two fine duets with the American bluesman Taj Mahal, recorded backstage in a dressing room in Norwich, of all improbable locations.

These recordings gave Gold the idea of taking Ali to the US to record an album of guitar duets with Ry Cooder. The result was the Grammy-winning Talking Timbuktu (1994). After that, he became increasingly reluctant to leave his farm on the banks of the River Niger and there were just two more solo albums. To make Niafunke (1999), Gold had to travel with a mobile studio and generator to record in Ali’s village. It’s a hugely atmospheric recording, although its reputation has suffered – probably unfairly – by being sandwiched between his two undisputed masterpieces in Talking Timbuktu and Savane. At the same productive sessions at the Hotel Mande, Bamako that produced Savane, Ali also recorded In The Heart Of The Moon (2006), a beautiful album of guitar-kora duets with Toumani Diabaté. A second album of duets – Ali and Toumani – recorded with Diabaté in London in the summer of 2005 was released by World Circuit in 2010 and was a Top of the World recording in Songlines #66.

Best Albums


(World Circuit, 2006)

The last is the one to buy first. Justifiably sub-titled ‘The King o f the Desert Blues Singers’ in a homage to the classic Robert Johnson IP, it’s an album of such profound depths that it really sounds as i f his entire career was spent ramping up to this masterpiece.



ali-and-toumaniAli and Toumani

(World Circuit, 2010)

‘Kala Djula’ is perhaps the album’s most enchanting tune, like an African cousin to Henry Purcell’s ‘Lillibullero’. At the very end of the record, Ali’s voice is heard saying ‘Eh, voilà’, as if suggesting that that’s it; it’s perfect and there’s really nothing left to say.



toure-heartIn The Heart Of The Moon

(World Circuit, 2005)

Wonderfully fluid and spontaneous-sounding duets between Ali’s acoustic guitar and Toumani Diabate’s rippling kora with contributions from Cooder and Cuban bass player Orlando ‘Cachaito’ lopez added later.




toure-timbuktuTalking Timbuktu

(World Circuit, 1994)

Ali hated LA and the Hollywood studio in which the album was recorded. But he and Cooder emerged with an album of intuitive guitar magic that will be the subject of a Classic Album feature in a future issue of Songlines.




toure-the-sourceThe Source

(World Circuit, 1992)

The first album on which we really heard him let rip on electric guitar and with a bigger band, although there are some fine acoustic tracks too. Taj Mahal and Nitin Sawhney make fine cameo appearances.





Top 25 Mali Albums

This article originally appeared in Songlines #41. Subscribe to Songlines

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