In the Barbican Hall last night, in an emotional but rousing evening’s music, one Malian superstar celebrated the memory of another.
Toumani Diabatés elder statesman status (although he’s only middle aged) has much to do with his prowess as a recording artist. His varied albums of the past few years – the stunning solo record The Mandé Variations and big band recording with his Symmetric Orchestra (surely one of the funkiest African albums ever produced) – have entrenched the view that here is a musician who has the ability to celebrate the music of his homeland at the same time as redefining it.
Yet it is his duo project with Ali Farka Touré that has been his most enduring achievement to date. In the Heart of the Moon (2005) is has become the stuff of legends. The two lions of Malian music – the griot from the south (Diabaté) and the blues guitarist from the north (Touré) – met at the Hotel Mandé in Bamako, on the banks of the Niger river, and without any rehearsal recorded an improvised set that was intimate, gentle and haunting. The partnership was further sealed with a further London recording session, the fruits of which were finally released this year: Ali and Toumani.
To celebrate Tourés life, Diabaté brought a traditional-modern band to the Barbican to play a show entitled The Ali Farka Variations, with Tourés guitarist nephew, Sambo Touré, taking on the role his relative would have played in the proceedings. In a musical community where family is so important, it was a nice touch. Sambo played with confidence and brio, adding the grit needed to make his uncle’s tunes swing. With its distinctive hooks and thick grooves, Diabatés band was the Symmetric Orchestra in all but name (most of the musicians here play in the band) and if not all of Tourés compositions worked in this bombastic setting, those that did were exhilarating. Fodé Lassana Diabatés pounding balalphon solos were a delight – even though they struggled to be heard – and Mamadou Kouyatés clear and strong praise-singing added a welcome addition to the texture.
Sitting centre-stage on a red rug, head bobbing with concentration and frequently smiling affably in encouragement to his band mates, Diabatés is a benign presence on stage. Spinning runs against the other soloing instruments or simply filling in rhythms, he is just as happy to be a part of the tapestry as he is taking the spotlight. However when he does take a solo, a palpable sense of excitement rises in the hall. It was fitting then that, following the final blasting ensemble number (that had the Barbican arena audience dancing in the aisles), Diabaté returned for a solo piece. He played ‘Elyne Road’ from The Mandé Variations, a 15 minute version that stunned with its speed and sensitivity. Very special indeed.
Lucy Duran (who I was sitting next to at the Barbican) presents this concert on World Routes on Saturday 5 June at 3pm on BBC Radio 3. Tune in.