When Anthony Ham recently returned to Mali’s capital city, he had one overriding thought in his mind – find Toumani Diabaté.
On a slow boat up Mali’s Niger River in November 2005, I arrived in Niafunké hoping for a chance meeting with the master blues guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Perhaps more than any other musician, Ali Farka was responsible for introducing Malian music to the world. Sadly, he had left Niafunké the day before to travel to Paris for medical treatment. He never returned and died of cancer four months later. The loss to the world of music was unquantifiable, and brought to mind the words of Mali’s greatest 20th-century writer, Amadou Hampaté Bâ: “the death of an old man is like the burning down of a library.”
My late arrival in Niafunké those years ago still haunted me as I arrived for my latest visit, as did the knowledge that I had never heard Ali Farka play live in front of his adoring fans. These feelings were strongest whenever Ali Farka’s classic album The Source was struggling to make itself heard above the static of the tape deck in crowded bush taxis. “Dofana?” Ali Farka would ask. And the passengers would answer as one: “Vingt kilometre.”
Having missed my chance with Ali Farka, I resolved to not make the same mistake with Toumani Diabaté, the world’s finest exponent of the 21-stringed kora and Ali Farka’s equal in influence and popularity; together the two men won a Grammy for their album In the Heart of the Moon.
A deeply traditional instrument, with its roots in the musician caste of griots who served as the region’s praise-singers, oral historians and storytellers, the kora represents the unbroken thread between modern West Africa and its epic past. As such, the kora has always been more than a medium of mere entertainment and instead speaks to the heart of Malian life. But Toumani Diabaté has taken kora playing to a new level, recording albums with Björk, Spanish flamenco giants Ketama, jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd and bluesmen from Taj Mahal to Ali Farka himself. Whereas Ali Farka was a traditionalist, to listen to Toumani Diabaté’s music is to hear the timeless, harp-like call of angels wedded to the clamour of an increasingly globalised world.
Toumani and his 25-strong Symmetric Orchestra play on Fridays at Bamako’s Le Diplomate, an open-air bar-restaurant, and it was here that I headed to exorcise the ghost of the meeting-that-never-was in Niafunké. As is his custom, Toumani was scheduled to perform at 10pm but arrived well after 1am, wandering in to take his place amid the chaos of musicians who had begun performing hours before. If ever a performance confirmed that the kora has transcended its origins, then it was this night at Le Diplomate , when his orchestra lit up the warm Sahelian night until it felt as if the whole world was dancing.
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A few days later, I met Toumani at his home on Bamako’s northwestern outskirts. I dipped my fingers into the Diabatés’ bowl as family members wandered in and out of the simple courtyard, accompanied by the sounds of rudimentary kora notes from an upstairs room.
In his own good time, ever concerned that I had not eaten enough, Toumani led me out onto the street. This being Bamako, a rat scurried into an open drain as we climbed into his Bentley. We glided soundlessly through the streets to his studio.
“What has been the secret of Mali’s musical success?” I wondered as he was setting up for a rehearsal.
“First of all, we have quality. Secondly, each ethnic group in Mali has deep cultural roots and long musical traditions. One of the most important things is our culture of the griots. Almost all of Mali’s musicians come from griot families. As griots, we learn the kora in our families when we are growing up.”
“When did you start playing the kora?”
“When I was five years old. The kora has been around for 700 years and I am the 71st generation in my family to play the kora.”
“Your father, Sidiki Diabaté, was considered one of the finest kora players of his generation. Did he teach you to play?”
“No, he never had time to teach me. I had to learn by watching and listening. Kora-playing is a gift from God.”
“What did he think of your collaborations with musicians from beyond Mali?”
“He liked the fact that I took the kora in a new direction, because he understood that every generation has to find its own way.”
“And will there be a 72nd generation of kora players in your family?”
“My son plays the kora, but he likes more modern music and he also plays the piano. He, too, has to find his own way.”
And with that, Toumani took up his kora and began to play.