“Where is Toumani?” vocalist Soumaila Kanoute sings every Friday night in a small bar in Bamako called Hogon. “Toumani has arrived!” he announces as an unassuming man, carrying a four-foot high 21-stringed harp-lute known as a kora, takes centre stage. And every Friday night the expectant crowd erupts in song and dance to the African star’s latest project: Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra.
A world away from the Malian drinking hole where the group jam into the early hours, audiences are now clambering to see the funky big band light up some of Europe’s biggest stages, including an upcoming headline slot at the Brighton Festival. But after winning a Grammy for his beautiful and subtle collaboration with the late Ali Farka Toure on 2005′s In The Heart of The Moon and critical adoration for directing his Symmetric Orchestra on the new Boulevard De L’Independence album, Toumani remains unfazed; completely relaxed with his ever increasing fame.
Music for this man is not a job, not a hobby, not even a calling, but, simply, his life
“I’m still doing my griot job in the way it has been done for 700 years,” he tells Fly, when we finally get to chat to the busy star somewhere between recording a session for the BBC and what sounds very much like the beginning of a party in his hotel room. “The griot people are the peacemakers and we make communication.”
Griots are a caste of musicians and storytellers from the ancient Malinke Empire of the Mande people that once covered most of West Africa. Toumani Diabate can trace his griot ancestry back 53 generations. Music for this man is not a job, not a hobby, not even a calling, but, simply, his life.
“There was no written book of the history on the Malinke Empire so it is up to the griot people keep African history going. If you want to learn this traditional music you have to be born griot — you can not become griot. Our music is a translation and a very nice translation.”
Toumani is proud of his musical heritage and birthright as a griot, but he has never been afraid of experimenting with musicians from different styles of music; jazz, blues and flamenco among others. As Toumani’s reputation as the best kora player in the world spread beyond his continent’s shores, producers such as Ry Cooder, the Spanish flamenco group Ketama and Damon Albarn (a reputedly ill-tempered affair about which Toumani claims Albarn used unsolicited music for his Mali Music album), flocked to work with him.
“Whenever I meet different type of culture, like with my Spanish records and with [blues guitarist] Taj Mahal, the different fusion I make I give my home spirit and at the same time I learn from their spirit,” he says.
“The music I create is in the home language. But you know the G is in Mali is the same G in America, Sydney and London. And on the piano and on the guitar and on the saxophone.”
Toumani’s experimental work led him to be labelled a maverick, even developing his own style of kora playing by picking out the bass and accompaniment as well as the traditional solo melody. But even traditionalists could not deny his incredible musicianship.
Toumani Diabate was born in Bamako in 1965, son of the “king of the kora” and griot Sidiki Diabate, although he didn’t teach his son; Toumani taught himself from the age of 5.
His recording career started in London back in the late 80s with his solo recording Kaira (Rykodisc/Hannibal) at the age of 21, yet it was to be his 2005 album In The Heart Of The Moon with the legendary north Malian guitarist Ali Farke Toure, who died only a couple of months ago, that was to bring him worldwide recognition and a Grammy. This breathtaking album showcased Toumani’s unique style to great affect: sweeping solos, yet holistically backed with subtle accompaniment.
“The album I made with Ali Farke Toure was made in hours and without any rehearsal. We have a good spirit for each other. The music is just natural, good quality and sweet,” he tells me, underlining his work ethic.
“Even the Symmetric Orchestra was a live recording without any overdubs live in Mali. The first spirit that you play is the first good one. I think you just have to do it the natural way.”
Boulevard De L’Independace is a very different than his solo work. Featuring some 43 musicians, this seems the Kora player’s most ambitious work to date, but for the musicians it was only a matter of committing to tape what happens every Friday in Bamako’s Hogon Bar. Yet despite being full of big horn parts (arrangement courtesy of funky American saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis), thumping percussion, sublime vocals mixing an eclectic range of music from salsa to funk, the quiet kora work is defiantly the pulsing heart of the music. “I just gave the bass line I play to the bass player and the accompaniment to the rest of the band,” he explains. This leaves Toumani free to explore his solo work.
But beyond the musical brilliance, Toumani sees the Symmetric Orchestra as binding West Africa in the way the Malinke Empire did seven centuries earlier, by transcending the areas many disputed borders. “I chose the name Symmetric in order to show the balance between all the elements is even, complimentary, each instrument contributing to the whole, equally, to create a groove, a flow,” he writes on the albums sleeve notes.
It also serves to preserve another great African tradition: that of the big band sound. “Large orchestras are being forgotten in Africa and all over the world,” he complains. “The new generation do not know about it — because of the new technology it has been forgotten. With drum machines, keyboard and synthesizer one man can do the job of 20 people. At the same time the machines are not natural and people need to be natural. That is the spirit behind the Symmetric Orchestra.”
There is no doubt Toumani has arrived on the world stage.
His album In The Heart Of The Moon with Ali Farka Toure and Boulevard De L’Independance are available on World Circuit Records.
See Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra with Cheikh Lo at:
Tue 23-May-06 The Lighthouse Poole UK
Wed 24-May-06 The Sage Gateshead UK
Thu 25-May-06 Philharmonic Hall Liverpool UK
Fri 26-May-06 The Anvil Basingstoke UK
Sun 28-May-06 Brighton Festival – Brighton Dome Brighton UK
Tue 30-May-06 Symphony Hall Birmingham UK
Wed 31-May-06 Bridgewater Hall Manchester UK
–Photo © Christina Jaspers–