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Field Day Preview: Toumani Diabate Interviewed
John Doran , July 30th, 2009 04:40

Toumani Diabate’s oral history states that he is the 71st in a line of kora players. So the fact that he plays this 21-stringed banjo, harp and lute hybrid is perhaps not so surprising. But even the fact that he has been surrounded by people who make and play this instrument his entire life (he is 44 this year) doesn’t quite explain his utter and complete mastery of it. Born in Mali, he is one of the biggest musical exports in a country that has many. Mory Kante (originally from Guinea), an émigré, brought the instrument to prominence with his Mande crossover hit ‘Ye Ke Ye Ke’ in 1987. He in turn had been a member of Bamko’s Super Rail Band who were one of the country’s many popular dance groups. Other notable stars of the Malian firmament include the Afro-blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure and the so-called ‘Blind Couple Of Mali’ duo Amadou and Mariam who have made a big impression on the pop charts recently.

So even in a country where it is relatively hard to make one’s mark, Toumani Diabate is held in exceptionally high regard. His skill at the instrument perhaps comes from his dedication to it; his attention to detail might be described as autistic, while the amount of time he spends practicing could certainly be described as monastic. In fact, when having a rare break from writing, recording and practicing he'll be in his family’s kora workshop helping to make the things.

The young Diabate taught himself to play the kora while his father was away on tour; and he obviously did a good job, as his debut album Kaira reveals. Although he's steeped in Mande tradition he has embraced multiple disciplines. For example, he's recorded a couple of albums as Songhai in conjunction with the Spanish flamenco group Ketama and British jazz-folk bassist Danny Thompson. Likewise, he's recorded with the blues guitarist Taj Mahal and Damon Albarn as part of the Mali Music project.

It was Afro Sonic’s pleasure to speak to him recently before his appearance at this year’s Field Day festival.

How many years have you been playing the kora and how many years would you say it took you to get to the level you are at now?

Toumani Diabate: I first picked up the kora when he I was about five, I call it "a divine power”. It's not like any instrument in the world. My father was often away touring with the national ensemble so I learned by playing to the melodies of my mother, who was a singer. I got education about how to be in this world; we have a proverb in Mandinka [the Malian Mande language]: 'You just have to do your time and one day you'll be gone.' Your time is a short one. Don't try to be aggressive. If you don't respect yourself, you don't respect the people. I learned in my family how to be with the people. I like to think that I am always developing my skills and technique. At the time I released my first album Kaira in 1988 I was very proud of it and what I had accomplished in bringing the kora as a lead instrument to the world, but if you compare it to my next solo album The Mande Variations from last year you can see how much I’ve progressed.

There are probably no British equivalents to the kora — how would you describe the instrument and how you play it?

TD: I suppose that the Celtic harp played in Ireland and Scotland is the closest thing the British have to the kora, it comes from a rather different tradition but I do love that music. The kora is a 21-stringed instrument, calabash bowl covered in hide, with tree neck and fish gut strings — that makes more sense if you see a picture, there are plenty of photos on my website

Mali seems to have one of the richest musical traditions in the African continent; what do you put this heritage down to? There is a pretty big gap between you and Amadou & Mariam and Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen.

TD: Mali was at the centre of the great Mande Empire that spread across West Africa and included all sorts of great peoples and cultures. Each part of Mali has their own tradition and that is reflected in the music: I am Nayamakala (or Djeli), Ali is Peul from the North of Mali, Tinariwen are Tuareg, and so on. It was unusual when Ali played Manding music with me on In the Heart of the Moon, perhaps more important to Malians, but something I was very proud that he did this for me.

You come from a long line of kora players don’t you? Do you hold an official post in Mali and what does this entail?

TD: I come from 71 generations of kora players, so yes is the answer to the first question. I’m not sure if you could say I hold an official post, but if I’m in the country my Symmetric Orchestra are the group that the president calls to play for visiting dignitaries at official state functions. My father and mum did the same job. It's not because you're going to the president's palace to play that you're part of his party. To be visible outside of your country, you also have to play for your people in your country. It's important. We’ve played for Jimmy Carter, Colonel Gadaffi, George Bush to name but a few. The president sees the kora as an incredibly important part of Malian culture, and I’m very proud of that.

What was London like in the 80s when you travelled there to record your debut?

TD: I was very young and everything was new and exciting. To record my first album, the first international release of solo kora, and then the response it got was amazing. Ali Farka Toure first came to London at this time to record his first album for World Circuit and I played calabash with him at a few shows (and on the album), interesting how things would come full circle with us recording together and then releasing my second solo kora album 20 years later. Many of the people I met on that first trip such as Lucy Duran are still close friends and have played a part in my career ever since.

You’ve recorded albums with jazz musicians and blues musicians. What are the similarities between these genres and Mande music?

TD: For me music is music. Music is the universal language, whilst words may differ from region to region, a ‘C’ on a piano in Vienna is the same as a ‘C’ on a steel drum in Rio, or a ‘C’ on a fiddle in the Scottish Highlands. Music is the universal language so there’s always a way for musicians to communicate. Blues and jazz come from music brought over by Africa slaves to the United States, those slaves left from West Africa which is where Mali and the Mande Empire is so one can assume that elements of my culture filtered it’s way down over a few hundred years to the jazz and blues of today. Ali Farka Toure always said that the blues is just another name for traditional Malian music. Our music is older than Bach. Why did orchestras not want to play with traditional instruments from Africa or from China? Why has it never happened before? I hope that the work I’ve done will be a beginning for some good collaborations. Westerners don't know even 5% of Malian culture — the power that we have.

Is it true that the waltz ‘Elyne Road’ is inspired by the Anglo-Jamaican reggae band UB40? What other pop influences from around the world do you have?

TD: There’s a passage in that tune that was inspired by UB40’s hit ‘Kingston Town’. Growing up I was a huge fan of the rock group The Scorpions, we heard all sorts of music growing up, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Reading, Bob Marley, and so on.

How did you come to meet Damon Albarn and what was it like working with him? I’m guessing Blur aren’t famous in Mali?

TD: Damon came to Bamako for the Mali Music project, he works very fast, I didn’t even know that the tracks we recorded would end up on the album. Blur aren’t that well known in Mali but Damon’s passion for our music and the work he’s doing with our musicians is respected and appreciated. He doesn't say 'I'm Damon! I'm Damon!' like a superstar. No, he's a nice person. Simple guy, no problem, but very intelligent. I'm on a good level with Damon. We call each other bro.

What can you tell us about the tradition of griot singing?

TD: The griots are the chroniclers, they are the keepers of our oral history, they sing (or in my case play) for all manner of important occasions, births, deaths, weddings, religious festivals and celebrations. The griots play an important role in preserving our cultural heritage, and in more recent times making others beyond our society aware of our history.

What was it like working with Bjork?

TD: Bjork was great no ego, no rock star posing, she came down to Mali and recorded with my band, sang at The Hogon, she really immersed herself into the music. She played her music and I played my music, and we put it together and it became new music. She was great, ready to experiment with the kora. She also invited me to play several live shows with her which was great fun, performing together in front of tens of thousands of people at Glastonbury was an amazing experience.

Can you tell me about your workshop and how much effort goes into the koras that you make?

TD: My workshop not only makes koras for Malian players, and for those musicians that visit Mali to come and experience our music and culture first hand, but when a visiting dignitary is greeted by our president they are now given a small kora that is made at our workshop, so presidents from various countries around the world have a kora made at my workshop.

For more details on the Field Day Festival, click here.