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Toumani Diabaté, St George's Bristol | reviews, news & interviews

Toumani Diabaté, St George's Bristol

Toumani Diabaté, St George's Bristol

Mali's musical ambassador and master of inspired improvisation

The world master of the kora weaving his unholy magic

Toumani Diabaté is the world’s greatest and best-known kora player. Plugged in deep to a musical tradition that goes back over seven centuries, this griot or jali takes his custodial role very seriously, but he is also an adventurer who has stretched the repertoire of his ancient strings by listening avidly to music from an astonishingly wide range of sources.

All of this was already obvious when he first came to Bristol in 1987, to take part in a number of WOMAD-sponsored activities which were the subject of a Channel 4 film I was making at the time. Toumani, a fresh-faced 22-year-old, came with his great uncle, the Gambian kora master Amadou Bansang Jobarteh. They played together in the WOMAD field at Glastonbury, pieces from the great reservoir of Manding musical culture. The gentle flow of the two instruments captivated an audience who were still relatively innocent of world music’s many treasures. They did an acoustic set at the Agoraphobic Parrot, a small café tent, and that day I understood why Lucy Duran, Amadou's pupil, had told me that the kora was a magical instrument, a tool for healing body and spirit. Back in Bristol, after doing a workshop in a local school, Toumani worked up some fusion pieces with a couple of local musicians. It was playful stuff though nothing to rave about.

Toumani has gone on to combine devotion to the Manding tradition with an almost promiscuous series of collaborations – with avant-garde jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, the neo-flamenco group Ketama, bluesman Taj Mahal, various symphony orchestras, sub-Saharan guitar wizard Ali Farka Touré, Björk and most recently the Afrocubism project. Half an hour before going on stage, Toumani tells me that, although he enjoyed playing with Bassekou Kouyate, Kasse Mady Diabaté, Djelimady Tounkara, Eliades Ochoa and the other members of Nick Gold's supergroup, he is keen to go solo again and to promote the kora. His instrument's sound was buried, he felt, in the rich texture of a band of which he wasn't the leader.

On his return to Bristol he played solo, with backing from three musicians whom he kept in the background, although the sometimes unsatisfactory mix made them a little too present at times. He played the kora with his customary brio but, over-amplified, as if to compensate for his time as a member of the more democratic band of Malians and Cubans he last toured with. The kora's delicate textures fared badly through a cranked-up PA: yes, you could hear it loud and clear, but there was a harshness at times which may have appealed to a gallery fed on rock-guitar histrionics but didn't accord with the instrument's power to open the heart more gently.

Toumani, while we talked before the show, spoke of his duty as a griot: "We are ambassadors, we have to take Manding music and its instruments into the world." In his usual way, he spent time telling the audience about the instrument, which "combines the roles of bass, melody and improvisation". In order to make this clear, he said, he had literally translated the kora's versatility into a small band, with electric bass, guitar and drums. Malian music of the last 50 years has worked in the same way, with guitarists like Djelimady Tounkara playing in the style of the kora, balafon or ngoni, but it has never been done with the sense of didactic mission that Toumani displays on this tour. There was something a little forced about the combination which wasn't helped by the less than perfect sound mix and the fact that Toumani clearly rules over his cohorts with a bandleader's iron grip, rarely allowing them the space to stretch out. Before the interval, the band spent more time sitting there like lemons, while Toumani charmed the audience with cascades of notes and improvisational adventures that surpassed anything he has done before.

This was music that set the heart racing as well as soaring, and the audience were yelping with pleasure

In the second half they hit a stunning groove as they played a revved-up version of "Soubou ya ya", one of the tunes on Toumani's Grammy Award-winning In the Heart of the Moon - his first collaboration with Ali Farka Touré: as if by magic, the backing band achieved a tightness and discretion that allowed them to provide a mesmeric rolling riff, over which Toumani delivered a series of increasingly daring spontaneous explorations. He'd talked to me of producing a Manding version of jazz, and this was it - "nothing to do with "Take Five" or "Summertime"", he had insisted. He was now making music that set the heart racing as well as soaring, the audience were yelping with pleasure, and it felt as if the kora master had taken us one step further, at once rooted in the Manding tradition and breaking into new ground, with total confidence and to blazing effect.

The near-perfection of this extended moment couldn't be sustained and at the end of the second set Toumani succumbed, as so many African musicians, to the singalong and handclapping routine. The audience loved it, of course, but the on-the-beat predictability of the clapping went firmly against the off-beat and polyrhythmic message that Toumani, as ambassador, could be promoting. This was the beat of the political rally, not the glorious interplay that makes the music of Africa and the diaspora so appealing in the first place. For the encore, Toumani stepped out again on his own and played a new song which, as he explained in a very simple and moving introduction, spoke musically of humanity's need "to put culture, soul and spirituality back into a world that is obsessed with economics". He played with extraordinary lucidity and passion, demonstrating as he did at the start of the show, before the band came on, why he is so highly regarded by audiences and fellow musicians the world over: he is one of the great soloists of the age, at one with his instrument and with an eloquence that both enchants the mind and touches the very soul he is hoping to re-awaken.

  •   Toumani Diabaté is on UK tour until 13 November

Watch Toumani Diabaté perform

We are ambassadors, we have to take Manding music and its instruments into the world

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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A good, well written review. It is also my opinion that Toumani's music works best either in (solo) recordings or as solo concerts in small venues. Having seen him play with his Afrocubism large ensemble and been horrified to hear his kora being amplified to the level of a heavy metal rock guitarist, a return to small scale concerts is to be admired. The problem for the promoters is of course that he is hugely popular : everybody wants to see and hear him play. And so his kora - which is after all only a small harp-like instrument with limited sound projection - has to be amplified, with all its attendant problems. Finally thanks you Mark for including the Maestro's words regarding the World's obsession with money : as a devout Muslim spoken without one iota of irony.

Thanks Martin I did suggest to Toumani when I saw him at WOMAD that he dare do an acoustic set at St Georges as the hall has one of the best acoustics in the UK. He would have been heard way up on the balcony at the back - jazz bass players play there without PA and every bit of their instrument's texture, even at low volumes, is beautifully audible.

I mainly concur with review, brilliance of playing, citric status of backing musicians, etc, though might add that the twenty minute disquitions on two chords of the first half pushed at the boundaries of listening tolerance as well as kora practice. Left before the second, thereby missing the clapalong, thank God, as a St George's World Music audience participating ressembles nothing so much as an aerobics class in a residential care home.

Hey, Phil, breaking the boundaries of kora practice is what Toumani is all about. He is an acknowledged master of his art and in African musical traditions that gives him the right to stretch out. The twenty minutes you mention were adventurous, surprising and, to my mind far from excessive. You missed some great stuff in the second half!

Woah!! The 'clapalong' that you deride had the entire audience on its feet and took the roof off the hall. It seems that not everyone agrees with your rather contemptuous view of such things. And as the initiative and energy for it came very directly from Toumani himself, it was OK by me.

Great review. Being a citizen of Bristol I spent several weeks (literally) trying to decide whether to blow out the ticket I'd already got for the rearranged Owiny Sigoma Band gig at The Croft & come see Toumani instead. (Do African music purists frown on Owiny Sigoma Band? I hope not). Sounds like I missed a belter. So annoying when so few African bands come to Bristol that these two dates clashed. Or am I wrong & do lots of 'World On 3' style bands play Bristol but I don't hear about them? If so where do these gigs get promoted? Obviously not Hijack or Songkick, my usual sources for gig information.

I have been an admirer and follower of Toumani Diabate for many years since first hearing Mande variations.I am most concerned to have missed this latest tour (World Circuit why was it not circulated widely? - I thought I was on your mailing list?) I have been disappointed by the two occasions I have heard him live - at the Hay festival in 2010 and with Afrocubism at the Albert Hall in 2011. I understand and appreciate his interest to participate in different musical styles. He has on both live occasions stated his objective of developing culture. He shows by his collaborations a desire to integrate aspects of his culture and Malian musical tradition with other world music. It is brave, does not always work but when it does, makes a contribution that is of the greatest order to his objective. However this man is special for his ability to play the Kora. I want to hear his huge talent without the drowning of over amplification nor flattened by rythms unsympathetic to the Kora. The direction needs to be classical not pop; acoustic not electric; the virtuoso and his instrument. A classical Malian court performance set in surroundings that do justice to the marvellous sound he makes is not too much to ask? A chamber performance in collaborations with great virtuosos of western instruments?

Dear Nick Well said! I imagine we are at a point in the "going global" story of Malian (and other African) music where we need to look again at what this music is. We seem to be running on the initial explosion of African-music-as-a-new-party-music and WOMAD type post-rock "world music" experiences. While it is always possible to fit another culture's music into the structures of the West (as has been done with the "blues" of Ali Farka Toure), it is important to remember that the original music creates its own context and in doing so creates its own vital message. Toumani's first recording, Kaira, recording over 20 years ago is a fine example of a music which moves the body and the mind and yet remains as subtle as the finest chamber music. I have had the privilege of adapting these awe inspiring compositions for solo guitar and have been constantly astounded at a range of compositional development that I have seen only in great musicians such as Bach or Scarlatti. It is possible that we could also revise our retelling of the Malian story and suggest that we see it through the lens of the western classical canon, or at least hear it presented and recorded with the kind of sound quality we would hear from Rubenstein or Yo-Yo Ma, in a space which does justice to an instrument with all the grace and profundity of any existing concert instrument. Perhaps in this way we could start to see that the music of the kora is a phenomenon of its own. It is not a new form of dance music, not a new form of jazz or even classical music. It is capable of delivering a profound and moving musical experience and should be given the perfect space to do this. I agree too that Toumani's message is his solo work and I feel that his output to date has not been allowed to develop this message in ways that were promised by that marvelous recording 20 years ago. We don't need another improvising axe-man - we need another profound composer and performer like the 20 year-old kora master that delivered a performance of some of Mali's greatest compositions which to this day should stand as one of the high points of instrumental music anywhere in the world (and seems to be destined to be appreciated only in obscure kora and African music collections). PLEASE enough Afro-Cuba - Let us hear the great music of the griots in its full power!

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