Toumani Diabate – The Mande Variations (World Circuit, 2008)
A true master of his craft, Toumani Diabate is capable of adapting the Kora to a wide variety of contexts, sounding every bit as comfortable on this exquisite solo recording as with his thrilling Symmetric Orchestra. The uniquely challenging instrument (a 21 stringed harp with 11 strings for one hand and ten for the other) has been in Diabate’s family for generations – his father Sidiki was reputedly also a virtuoso. Toumani recorded ‘Kaira’, his first solo Kora album at the tender age of 21, now returning to the strictures of solo recording (mostly single takes with no overdubs) more than twenty years later. In many ways, it represents a withdrawal or introversion – a musical examination of personal experience and founding influences.
‘The Mande Variations’ contains some of the most beautiful music of this year or any other. A lot of this undoubtedly rests heavily on Toumani’s technical brilliance and personal approach to composition but a good deal of credit should also go to World Circuit’s Nick Gold for creating such an extraordinary sound. Whilst little or no treatment has been applied to Toumani’s playing here, the natural acoustic is so reverberant and spacious as to capture Toumani’s dazzling virtuosity without sounding cluttered or busy. There is a calm, meditative quality to much of this music.
Toumani appears particularly open-minded in his approach to music. Whilst there is, as might be expected, a close personal engagement with the griot folk tradition from which he comes, there are also references and even quotes that present ‘The Mande Variations’ as an attempt to juxtapose heritage with some wider, more immediate influences, drawn both from music and experience. The wistful, haunting ‘Elyne Road’ incorporates the melody from reggae classic ‘Kingston Town’, with Toumani affected by the ubiquity of UB40’s version during his first trip to England. The remarkable closing track ‘Cantelowes’ quotes directly from Morricone’s soundtrack to ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, as well as being dedicated to a friend who lived on Cantelowes Road in London, where Toumani apparently stayed for several months when first in the UK.
The near-perfect synchronicity between Diabate’s left and right hand figures is astonishing, particularly on the peculiarly relentless ‘Kaounding Cissoko’. ‘Ali Farka Toure’, of course dedicated to the recently departed desert blues sensation, demonstrates both Diabate’s manual dexterity and his musical intuition, with lengthy flurries of notes that defy the imagination. The latter was purely improvised in the studio, a further testament to Diabate’s open-mindedness towards a variety of compositional techniques.
Elsewhere, he draws directly on the folk tradition, always refashioning melodic ideas for his own purposes. For example, the opening ‘Si Naani’ features two themes taken from Griot folk songs, but which Diabate has made his very own through his considered and expressive extrapolations. The album’s title perhaps hints at his extraordinary talent for developing and expanding melodic ideas. There’s little of the twitching and flitting between numerous ideas that sometimes undermines improvisational playing – Diabate is more interested in establishing and sustaining particular emotions. Whilst there’s a sense of wistful nostalgia to much of this music, there’s also a sense of looking forward at the same time as retreating inward – a powerful combination that lends Diabate’s refashioning of his influences a genuinely timeless aura.
What is most powerfully striking about ‘The Mande Variations’ is that, in the midst of all this dazzling technique and exceptional skill, there is very little sense of ego or aggression. Somehow, Diabate manages to make all this sound peaceful and reflective, and he never resorts to vacuous showmanship. He may have the ability to dazzle, but he also has the judgement and instinct to know when to hold back. Technique is always firmly subordinated to the abiding mood or feeling, and the album is richly rewarding and emotional as a result of this.