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Toumani & Sidiki Diabaté

Waltons World Masters Series

– The Guardian

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When Saturday, 7 June 2014
Where National Concert Hall, Dublin, Main Auditorium
Presented by Waltons New School of Music
Supported by RTÉ Supporting the Arts, Conrad Dublin Hotel

In 2014, the Waltons World Masters Series welcomed two-time Grammy-winning Toumani Diabaté, celebrated as one of Africa’s most gifted musicians and the greatest kora player in the world. More than anyone, Toumani is responsible for bringing the glorious sounds of the kora, a West African 21-string harp, to audiences everywhere. Hailing from a family of exceptional griots and musicians, his musical pedigree extends back over 700 years and 71 generations of kora players, but he is also a fearless explorer and has collaborated across the musical spectrum with artists including the late, great Ali Farka Toure, blues legend Taj Mahal, Damon Albarn and Bjork. For this very special concert he shared the stage with his son, rising kora star 23-year-old Sidiki Diabaté, and together they performed an extraordinary concert.

‘He’s the sort of player you only encounter once in a lifetime…on a par with Glenn Gould or Rostropovich.’
– Lucy Duran, BBC Radio 3

‘a performance that surpasses anything…for sheer scale of ambition and technical achievement.’
– The Independent

‘The world’s finest exponent of the kora…historic, a sublime reminder that Diabaté is a star, not just by western, but by global standards.’
– The Guardian

‘Like Duke Ellington on a truly tropical night…mysterious beauty and grandeur, and as funky as hell.’
– The Observor

‘not only the hottest but also the most ambitious and visionary kora player on the scene today’
– Boston Phoenix

‘Extraordinarily beautiful melodies…and whirlpools of mesmerising sound’
– The Scotsman

‘This was music that set the heart racing as well as soaring, and the audience were yelping with pleasure.’
– The Arts Desk

‘Free-flowing rhythms and dazzling musicianship…’
– The Times

Niall Crumlish

State Magazine

It’s not that easy within a few hundred words to describe, for anyone uninitiated, who Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté are, and why they lifted the roof clean off the NCH.

A Malian father and son duo who play the kora, a traditional West African harp-lute, which has 21 strings and which Toumani described, to amusement from the crowd, as “very easy to play – one hand for the bass and one for the melody and improvisation”. This was like Martin Hayes saying of the fiddle “one hand for the bow and one for the strings” or John Coltrane saying of the saxophone “it’s easy to play – you just stick it in your gob”.

Toumani is the Martin Hayes of the kora to Sidiki’s Jimi Hendrix: the father capable of anything but by default that bit more meditative and textural; the son, only 24, youthfully fond of blistering, liberating solo runs. Together, they play with an obvious understanding, a shimmering fluency and grace and an almost heartbreaking joy in sheer creation. Seeing them live, you get lost in the sound they make and you do not want the music to stop when it starts.

The pair can trace back their ancestry through 72 generations of Malian griots, or musician-poets, and in a profile by Lucy Duran, Toumani Diabaté – The kora: tales of a frontier instrument, there is a story of the foundations of the Diabaté dynasty that captures who they are and what they do. The origin story goes that in the 13th century two brothers were out hunting and one saved the other from attack from a wild animal. Duran writes: “The elder brother, in gratitude, sang out his praises. The younger brother replied, ‘if you become a praise singer, no one will be able to refuse you’ – and that is the meaning of the name Diabaté.”

Through their koras, the Diabatés are praise singers, in a highly literal and a broader sense. Literal, because many of Toumani’s tunes, including some from the self-explanatory new album Toumani and Sidiki that they play tonight, are tributes to people named in the titles. (‘Dr Cheikh Modibo Diarra’ and the exultant ‘Rachid Ouguini’ were met by rapturous roars.) More broadly, because the act of creating and sharing music so full-hearted is an act of giving and an act of thanks and praise, to whomever one might think praise is due. It is a clear and simple statement of something not often enough said: it is a glorious thing to be alive.

Even the laments, such as ‘Lampedusa’, with which they close the show, are hopeful in their own way. Toumani speaks about the song at length; how he was inspired to write it last October by the loss at sea of a boat full of 360 people trying to make their way to Italy from Africa. He talks about the awful sickening tragedy of this, about the failures of understanding and empathy that let such things continue to happen and to be ignored, and about the hope, real in his mind, that humans might some day stop treating other humans as if they don’t matter. “Close your eyes and dream with this song,” he says, and, for a few minutes, bathed in the music, that’s what we allowed ourselves to do.

Toumani Diabaté

Toumani Diabaté was born in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in 1965, into a family of exceptional griots (hereditary musician/historian caste); his research shows 71 generations of kora players from father to son. The most notable was his father, Sidiki Diabaté (ca. 1922 – 1996), a kora player of legendary fame in West Africa – dubbed ‘King of the Kora’ at the prestigious international Black Arts Festival Festac in 1977, and a continuing inspiration to all kora players to this day. Sidiki was born in the Gambia of Malian parents. He settled in Mali after the Second World War and became famous there for his virtuoso ‘hot’ and idiosyncratic style of playing (echoes of which can be heard in Toumani’s style). After Mali became independent in 1960, Sidiki was invited to join the Ensemble National Instrumental – a government sponsored group formed to celebrate the richness of Malian culture –  along with his first wife, Toumani’s mother, the singer Nene Koita. Sidiki and Nene were much favoured by the first president, Modibo Keita, who gave them the land on which the family house now stands, underneath the presidential palace in Bamako.

This was the musical environment in which Toumani was raised, though in fact he was self-taught, never learning directly from his father except by listening. In the 1960s, and more so the 1970s, the Bamako music scene was being influenced by sounds from further afield, especially black American music; soul music was particularly popular, as was Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Smith and British rock acts such as Led Zeppelin. Exposure to these sounds, and Bamako’s modern ensembles, would both be important to Toumani’s musical development.

A child prodigy, Toumani began playing the kora at the age of five, and at that time, the Malian Government was engaged in an active programme of encouraging regional ensembles to represent local traditions. Toumani was recruited to the ensemble from Koulikoro (some 60 kilometres east of Bamako), with which he made his public debut at the age of 13 to great local acclaim. In 1984 Toumani joined the group of brilliant young musicians who accompanied the great diva Kandia Kouyate, the best known and most powerful female griot singer in Mali, with whom he toured Africa extensively, still only 19 years old.

Although not learning directly from his father Toumani took from him the idea of developing the kora as a solo instrument, and then took it to another level. He discovered a way to play bass, rhythm and solo all at the same time on the kora, a method which would take him to the world stage. Toumani first came to Europe in 1986 to accompany another Malian singer, Ousmane Sacko, and ended up staying in London for seven months. During this period, at the age of 21, he recorded his first solo album Kaira. This ground-breaking album was the first ever solo kora album, and it still remains a best seller and one of the finest albums of kora music to date. In 1986 Toumani also made his first appearance at a WOMAD festival, at which he made a significant impact.

During this period in the UK he met and worked informally with musicians from many different fields of music and encountered traditions that he had not previously known, such as Indian classical music, from which he derived the ‘jugalbandi’ idea (musical dialogue between two instruments) that has since become one of his trademarks.

His first major recorded collaboration was with the Spanish flamenco group Ketama. When he first met them they immediately began doing ‘palmas’ (interlocked flamenco clapping) to his music. Toumani couldn’t believe that that they could have such an understanding of the rhythmic complexities of his music; it was as if they had always been listening to each other’s traditions. The resulting album, Songhai, was a perfect synthesis of kora and flamenco.

For Toumani experimentation is simply part of the job of a modern griot, ‘The griot’s role is making communication between people, but not just historical communication. In Mali I can work in the traditional way; elsewhere I can work in a different way. Why not?’ In 1990, Toumani formed the Symmetric Orchestra. For him, the name evokes a perfect balance – a symmetry – between tradition and modernity, and between the contributions of musicians from a number of closely related countries. Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Mali itself were all part of the medieval Mandé Empire. Toumani had the idea of recreating the cultural equilibrium of the Mandé Empire in a modern musical context, offsetting traditional and electric guitars with hard-edged sabar drumming, and praise-singing and lute-riffing alongside pounding kit drums, with Toumani’s own rippling kora phrases through it all. The orchestra name was first used on CD with the ambitious 1992 project, Shake the Whole World, released only in Japan and Mali. Maintaining a weekly residence in Bamako throughout Toumani’s career, the group continued to evolve and grow over the years, culminating in the release of the acclaimed album Boulevard de l’Indépendance in 2005, and the extensive international touring that followed.

In the early to mid 1990s, Toumani began to gather around him in Bamako a number of exceptionally talented musicians such as the brilliant Bassekou Kouyate on the ngoni, and Keletigui Diabaté on balafon, cultivating a certain sound and approach to his music – with a type of jazz-jugalbandi-griot instrumental ensemble which can be heard on his album Djelika, released in 1995. In the same year, Toumani travelled to Madrid to record Songhai 2. In 1998 he recorded a kora duet album with Ballake Sissoko; their two fathers had released the 1970s classic Cordes Anciennes (Ancient Strings), so the new album was called New Ancient Strings. It was their tribute to the original record and an attempt at bringing such material to a modern audience.

The connections between the blues and West African music are well known. Taj Mahal had listened to, and played with, many great kora players, and what most struck him as bearing an uncanny resemblance with the blues was the plucking techniques of the kora and other Malian string instruments. ‘They say that blues and jazz came from Africa’, says Toumani. ‘The kora and ngoni – they’re very old, many centuries old. So maybe the blues were once being played on these instruments. Making the album with Taj is like bringing the old and new together.’ That album, Kulanjan, was released in 1999.

Constantly looking to evolve and innovate, Toumani’s next album MALIcool, with American free jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, saw him take another step out on the edge. The arrangements on this album are sparse, leaving everyone room to improvise, and there are a few unexpected pieces such as an interpretation of Thelonius Monk’s ‘Hank’, a swinging version of a Welsh folk song, and a leftfield take on Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’.

Toumani has participated in many other recording projects both at home and abroad. He appeared on Ali Farka Touré’s eponymous debut album for World Circuit; he toured with Salif Keita and appears on both his acclaimed album Papa and his later release Mbemba; he was part of Damon Albarn’s Mali Music project; he is featured on Kasse Mady Diabaté’s 2004 Grammy-nominated album Kassi Kasse; and in 2007 he featured on the track ‘Hope’ on Björk’s album Volta, leading to an inspired guest appearance on her set at the Glastonbury Festival.

In recent years Toumani has been enjoying recognition for his contribution to the development of the kora, and as a key figure in African music. In 2004 he received the Zyriab des Virtuoses, a UNESCO prize awarded at the Mawazine Festival organised by King Mohammed 6th of Morocco. He is the first black African ever to be given the prize. Toumani is an active and dynamic member of the Malian musical community, and influential to the new generation. He has been taking steps to help preserve the legacy of traditional kora music in Mali, and to educate future generations of their rich musical heritage, whilst encouraging them also to explore the creative possibilities within the music. He is President/Director of Mandinka Kora Productions, which actively promotes the kora through workshops, festivals and various cultural events. Toumani is also a teacher of the kora and of modern and traditional music at the Balla Fasseke Conservatoire of Arts, Culture and Multimedia, which opened in Bamako at the end of 2004.

2004 also saw Toumani begin working with World Circuit for a trilogy of albums recorded at sessions in the Mandé Hotel in Bamako. The first release from these sessions was the duets album In the Heart of the Moon, recorded with the great Ali Farka Touré, which won the Best Traditional World Music Album Grammy Award. And the second release was Boulevard de l’Indépendance with the Symmetric Orchestra, packing the fruit of ten years of experimentation into some of the densest, punchiest, most richly textured music to have come out Africa.

More recently, the Symmetric Orchestra have proven to be a revelation on the international touring scene. Taking time out from their weekly residency at Bamako’s Hogon club, the band have been building a reputation for themselves at their own headline concerts at venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall, and festival appearances such as Glastonbury, Nice Jazz Festival and Montreal Jazz Festival.

In addition to this hive of activity, Toumani was also busy working on another album, The Mandé Variations, released in 2008. Having spent years refining and perfecting his technique to an unparalleled level, Toumani’s career came full circle. The Mandé Variations was all-acoustic, Toumani’s first album of solo kora since his debut album Kaira, released 18 years before.

Throughout Toumani’s career, each of the albums he has released was unique and highlighted his diversity as a musician. This is indeed what Toumani is so good at – bringing together the old and new in timeless beautiful music, the very best that Africa has to offer.

Toumani and Sidiki at Home

Sidiki Diabaté

Born in Bamako, Mali in 1990, Sidiki Diabaté is a kora player and hip hop producer and the latest addition to the celebrated Diabaté musical dynasty. He is the eldest son of the world’s greatest kora player Toumani Diabaté, and the grandson of Sidiki Diabaté senior (1922-1996) who was considered the greatest player of his generation. Like his father and grandfather before him Sidiki is a griot – a custodian of the ancient oral traditions of West Africa’s Mandé people, which stretches back, father-to-son for over 700 years.

Sidiki was initiated into the world of the kora when he was 10 years old. Since then he has spent years of intense study of the kora and the culture that surrounds it.

Now 23 and a father himself, Sidiki is considered to be a musical genius, with formidable technique and a distinctive style. He personifies the kora’s entry into the digital age. When he was a teenager he enrolled in the National Institute for the Arts in Bamako, taking up drums and learning digital recording techniques, and in 2013 he was voted Mali’s best beat-maker. As well as remaining true to the classical traditions of the kora, Sidiki sites contemporary Western stars such as Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West as influences.

A few years ago Sidiki teamed up with rapper ‘Iba One’ to form a duo who have become leading lights in Mali’s burgeoning rap scene. One of their biggest hits, ‘Hommage à Mohamed Cherif Madani Haidara’, was a tribute to the son of a prominent religious leader who advocated tolerance. The duo also played a major role in the recording of ‘On Veut La Paix’ (‘We Want Peace’), an all-star rap hymn to peace in Mali, which was released to great fanfare in 2012, when religious militants were attempting to outlaw music. The duo have performed to twenty thousand fans in Bamako’s Modibo Keita stadium.

Sidiki’s wish is to take his instrument, an emblem of 700 years of history, and make it an essential part of the changing environment around him. ‘You can’t imagine a rap movement anywhere that has the power and force of rap here in Mali’, says Toumani, his father. ‘Iba One and Sidiki Diabaté, they’re the number one rappers in Mali. Their lyrics talk about the ills of our society, the problems. But at the same time their music is full of rhythm, in the true spirit of Malian music.’ Sidiki and his kora are at the forefront of a movement that is attempting to change political thinking in West Africa.

The recording of the album Toumani & Sidiki and their tour together marks a poignant and significant moment in Sidiki’s life. ‘For me to play with my dad is like a dream. Yes I’m a hip hop artist, but I love and respect my roots as a kora player, I want to know more. It’s my chance to learn directly from my father. It’s extra special because he is my idol.’

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