York County Prison The Season 12 'American Idol' performance finale was intense…
- Posted on Feb 26th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
Now, given most of Diabate's recordings, this might be a surprise. His last, 2006's 'Boulevard de L'Independence,' with his massive Symmetric Orchestra, was a lively, raucous, electric affair. And he's been known for collaborations with everyone from the late Malian guitar great Ali Farka Toure (including their 2006 Grammy-winner duets session 'In the Heart of the Moon' to American blues master Taj Mahal to Bjork (a featured spot on her last album, 'Volta'). But the new album, 'The Mande Variations,' is solo kora, the first such album he's made in 20 years. And it proved a near-seamless transition from the Segovia -- not simply for the tonal compatibility of the two plucked string instruments in question but for something at the core of the recordings: the sheer virtuosity of the musicians.
Diabate takes the comparison and compliment in stride. On the phone from New York, he gives a hearty, cheerful "bon jour," followed by a demure "thank you" at the Segovia mention. He's not looking to be put head to head with such figures. But he does wish the music he represents could be given the same kind of consideration as the Bach and Albeniz and Granados the guitar maestro played.
"I just want people to be free about African culture," he says with his heavy, round-toned French-Malian accent. "The music, especially the music I play in some songs on 'The Mande Variations,' they are all from more than 500 years ago. Before Mozart, before Beethoven, before Bach. How come this music didn't come out to the rest of the world? We still have this music from 500 years ago, and the kora is from 700 years ago. So we need this to be known, need it to be appreciated and need it to be respected."
That sounds like not just an album but a mission. "Yes," he says with succinct certainty of purpose.
It's a mission he says was not even possible when he made his debut album, the solo kora collection 'Kaira.' Part of the reason was that he simply wasn't ready as an artist.
"Twenty years ago I was another Toumani," says Diabate, the son of the late "King of the Kora," Sidiki Diabate, and heir to 71 generations of a tribal/family legacy as keepers of Mali's griot traditions. "I was young, 22 years old. Now I am 42, so it is different somehow. I got a chance to play with a lot of great musicians. So I take all those experiences and put them in the new album. I got a chance to play with Taj Mahal, to win a Grammy with Ali Farka Touré, do the last record with Salif Keita, play with Amadou & Mariam and the reggae band Tikan Jah Fakoly, great big stars from the Ivory Coast.
"And then it was very interesting to get back and to see how things work, to collect all the experiences together, with different ideals, different technical skills and with the things I see around me, like global warming," he continues. "So I just put my experiences in the new music."
He approached this recording largely the same as the first -- no overdubs, no retakes (though two 'Mande' tracks were recorded a second time due to sound problems). And despite the seriousness of purpose and the at-times elegiac tone -- his departed mentor and sometimes music partner Toure is honored via a particularly lovely track titled with his name -- it's not a somber venture. Rather, it's marked by passion, beauty and even some humor (keep your ears open for a Spaghetti Western quote and other light-hearted references). Still ...
"It's a big responsibility to me," says Diabate. "I have to show the true roots of my culture. I have to talk about it and have to play it. It's a really big job to do, and I'm happy to do it." He has some help, though. There is a globe's worth of ears out there much more ready for this than two decades ago.
"The Western people know today a lot about African music," he says. "So I have to bring music to them with experience, with the power to teach them to learn even more about it. Western people today can tell you the kora is a harp with 21 strings, made of a calabash and cowskin. But the technical playing of the kora they don't know, the spirituality of the kora they don't know about that. It's another level about the instrument itself."
But of course there's more to it than just that. This mission has an even larger scope, one that Diabaté sees as addressing the very state of the world, with his solitary performance as a tonic.
"We all are talking today about global warming, about AIDS, about malaria, about wars, about terrorists," he says. "All of the bad things being talked about today. They're all indications of bad feelings. People saying the music business is low, the dollar is bad, everything's bad. People do not think anything is good now.
"I'm not going to say that. This album is a positive force," he says. "We are all following the material, looking after the house, looking for money, for car, for mobiles, for computers. At the meantime, we forget ourselves. We can follow the material, but we have to think about ourselves, too. This is the positive message to say: Think about not only today, but the future. We have, you know, a lot of great opportunity, great chance. Be happy inside, because the rich man today, the poor man today, we are not happy inside.
"In Mandinka, Mali, we have a proverb: 'Only what you eat and what you drink is what's for you.' If you have 100 houses, you can just spend the night in one only. If you have 10 cars, you only can drive one car -- you're never going to drive the 10 cars at the same time," says Diabate. "So it's the message I bring on this music. A lot of people have told me, 'Toumani, this is great.' I see people crying at the end of the concerts. Why do they cry? Because the music touched them. They enjoy it a lot. I think it's a positive message."
Segovia probably could have related.