Sun, Feb 24, 2008 - Page 18 News List

Telling stories on the kora

Malian star Toumani Diabate is part of a musical dynasty that began in the 13th century. A master of the kora, both African spirits and Pink Floyd have influenced his music

By robin Denselow  /  THE GUARDIAN , BAMAKO, MALI


Toumani Diabate is sitting under a tree in his moonlit front garden, down a dusty dirt road in Bamako, the Malian capital. He is picking out a melody on the kora, the West African harp of which he is a master, and talking about what it means to be descended from a long line of professional hereditary musicians, known as griots. "The first role of the griot is to make communication," he says. "The griots are like an archive. They know the histories and the stories. I'm playing a griot instrument and taking it outside Africa."

Diabate has devoted his life to demonstrating the versatility of the kora - and it has made him a global celebrity. He has performed with Bjork at Glastonbury, UK, ("I didn't play her music," he says, "I played my music"); accompanied the Malian diva Kandia Kouyate and recorded both with Spanish flamenco group Ketama and American blues guitarist Taj Mahal. Three years ago, he made the award-winning album, In the Heart of the Moon, with Mali's greatest guitarist, the late Ali Farka Toure, in a mobile studio set up in Bamako's Hotel Mande. A year later, he was in the same studio recording a very different album, Boulevard de L'Independence, this time with his experimental Symmetric Orchestra, a band which places his amplified kora against electric guitar, massed percussion, brass and keyboards. Now he is releasing a new solo album, The Mande Variations, which shows him returning the kora to its traditional roots.

Diabate finds it as easy to talk about the distant past as he does about the present, and sees no clash between the two. So one minute, here in his garden, he is discussing Sunjata Keita - the man who, in the 13th century, founded the great empire of the Mande people that spread from Mali across much of West Africa. The next, he's taking calls on the mobile phone that is his constant companion, talking about the new album and the mystical, spiritual attributes of the kora.

Diabate can trace his family back 71 generations, to the era of Sunjata - "and they have been musicians all that time." His father, Sidike, was acknowledged as the most influential kora player in Africa, thanks to his skill as both an accompanist and a solo musician. Diabate has expanded that role, determined to show that "there's no limit to what the kora can do."

And yet Diabate insists that his father never taught him to play. "My father was too busy. It was the time of independence [Mali broke away from French rule in 1960], and the president had asked him, my mother - a fine singer - and other musicians to form a national traditional band. So I taught myself, listening to my father and grandfather, and different musicians." His influences include not just the griots and guitar-based African bands like Senegal's Orchestra Baobab, but Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, the Scorpions, Bad Company and Pink Floyd. "But music was a gift to me from God," he says.

The kora is constructed from the shell of a large gourd, the calabash, decorated and covered in cow skin; it has a long neck with 21 strings made from nylon fishing line. The instrument is treated with great respect - students at the Bamako conservatory, where Diabate teaches, have to make a ritual offering of kola nuts, "as a sign of respect," before they touch the kora for the first time. Diabate is a devout Muslim, with his own prayer room next to his office, and for him the kora is a "deep and spiritual instrument." He demonstrates how a kora player uses just the index finger and thumb of each hand - in a position that "makes the name of God in the Koran" - but warns that the kora also attracts the mischievous ancient African spirits, the Jinns. "So it's sometimes dangerous to play the kora after midnight in Africa, because the spirits will come, and you can see the Jinns ... . "

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