The Mandé Variations
Album review by Alfonso Barata
Toumani Diabaté is widely regarded as the most gifted kora player around (the kora - also known as the West African harp - is a twenty-one stringed instrument made with cow’s skin). The son of a master kora player, Diabaté was destined to become a master himself since music was very much part of his heritage; Diabaté was born in a Mandè family of griot musicians (griots, in the West African tradition, are the depositaries of the oral traditions, be these music or poetry).
Over the last twenty years since Diabaté made his debut in Europe, he has worked tirelessly and found time to collaborate with different artists, including the late Malian bluesman Ali Farka Toure, Björk, Ketama and Taj Majal, as well as publishing albums with the Symmetric Orchestra. However - despite his multiple recordings and collaborations - The Mandè Variations is his first solo album in twenty years, so the expectations for lovers of the kora were very high.
Following the kora tradition, many of the songs recorded here are laments for people who passed away, therefore helping keep the memory of these people who otherwise might have been forgotten. This is the case of the piece named after the late Ali Farka Toure, a good friend and mentor of Toumani, who passed away last year.
The album mixes his own compositions - where he uses the commonly used technique of improvisation - with his own versions of traditional compositions from the kora repertoire, such as Djourou Kara nany, which is the Arabic name given to Alexander the Great.
In both cases, Toumani Diabaté accomplished technique and mastery of the kora becomes clear, even for the non-trained ear. He seems to effortlessly produce music that mesmerises and excites in equal measure. His mastery and ability with this instrument is underpinned by pieces such as Kaounding Cissoko, which when performed live I am sure is bound to leave the audience wondering how can someone play so fast and yet produce such harmonic and beautiful sounds.
The Mandé Variations is a treat; a masterpiece that oozes talent and formidable musicianship and that shows us an artist who is at the top of his game.
Toumani Diabaté is performing at the Philharmonic Hall on 21st October 2008, in an intriguing collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which further shows the interest of this peerless artist to break down musical barriers, taking the kora beyond its traditional realm and finding new audiences on the way.
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