An­cient art pre­served by its tra­di­tional con­tem­po­rary

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music - Michael Rofe

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.

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