Ancient art preserved by its traditional contemporary
TWENTY years ago a young musician from Mali recorded his first solo disc, Kaira, in London. A bright and jangly album, it signalled the arrival of a prodigy. Son of Sidiki Diabate, one of the great kora players, Toumani Diabate is also a kora virtuoso. The African harp, with 21 steel strings and a large gourd resonator, is plucked like a classical harp. From a family of griots, or tradition holders, that can trace its lineage back to the Mande empire more than 700 years ago, Diabate grew up amid traditional influences and Western popular music, courtesy of Francophone colonial culture. Since then, he has recorded with flamenco group Ketama and bassist Danny Thompson in the group Songhai, with Bjork, Damon Albarn and many of his Mali contemporaries, including Ali Farka Toure, who died in 2006, on their sublime 2005 Grammy- winning album In the Heart of the Moon. Dipping into the lexicon to describe The Mande Variations cannot start to convey the importance of this disc. It is one of the best African recordings and a significant recording in any musical sphere. Eight instrumental tracks, recorded in two hours in a studio in London, are a flawless mix of traditional songs and improvisations on contemporary melodies. It is a disc of joyous homage to his peers and teachers, mixing intimate ballads and praise songs. Elyne Road , with a melody inspired by UB40’ s Kingston Town, is a highlight, with a slow and sensual fading chorus. With a spoken invocation, Ismael Drame is a praise song to his Tijaniya teacher, moving seamlessly between two traditional compositions. Repeated listening highlights the brilliance and richness of the music and recall jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s classic The Koln Concert . This is an exquisite masterpiece.