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

A noisy wedding got underway at the Hotel Mande during Diabate's first attempt to record The Mande Variations. So he and his producer, Nick Gold, moved the session to a little studio in Wood Green, North London, where they recorded the album in just two hours. It's a gentle, experimental record, taking in both ancient themes - as on the track Djourou Kara Nany, which, Diabate says, "makes use of a song about Mande history, from Sunjata's time" - and new praise songs, always a crucial part of a griot's repertoire. Two of these are named after London streets that are home to those who have helped his career. One such track, Elyne Road (in honor of Gold and his family) includes echoes of an old UB40 song, "because I remember the melody from when I first came to London."

Diabate's aim with the album is to make western audiences rethink their idea of African music. "Most people think that Africa doesn't have classical music," he says. "They think of Africa as having just dance and percussion - talking drums and calabash - but we have lots of music that's not percussion. People don't know that the kora is a great classical instrument."

But while Diabate sets out to educate Western audiences, he still has the duties of a modern-day griot to fulfill. Late one night in Bamako he performs at the Tamani Awards (Mali's music awards) where he is honored for the "best traditionally inspired music." From there he moves on to the Hogon, the open-air club where he plays every Friday night when he's in Bamako, and has done for 16 years. The dance floor is in semi-darkness, lit only by the moon, a strip of green neon behind the stage, and a few lights behind the bar. The Symmetric Orchestra has been playing for hours by the time Diabate joins them, at nearly 2:30am. He sits at the back of the stage talking on his mobile phone, then joins in, cutting through the massed percussion and electric guitar, improvising on his amplified kora. And the floor fills up with people dancing furiously in the dark.

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