Kora! Kora! Kora! Toumani And Sidiki Diabaté Interviewed

Representing the 71st and 72nd generations in a griot family, master kora players Toumani And Sidiki Diabaté are interviewed by Richie Troughton about Mali, tradition and hip hop

The last album of kora duets Toumani Diabaté played on was New Ancient Strings in 1997 on which he played with Ballaké Sissoko. The pair’s fathers were Sidiki Diabaté and Djelimadi Sissoko – the kora players who first introduced the instrument to an international audience in 1970 with Ancient Strings. The original plan for the New Ancient Strings recordings was for Toumani to record with his father, but Sidiki Senior died before the session was prepared, although they had played together at the Royal Festival Hall in 1987, the year before Toumani’s Kaira debut. Now Toumani has made the father-son recording pairing a reality, with Toumani & Sidiki a new album of kora duets with his eldest son Sidiki. With a family tradition of passing down music and stories that dates back through 72 generations the collaboration showcases the talent of the young apprentice musician, Sidiki.

At home in the Malian capital Bamako Sidiki has a successful career as a producer and arranger of contemporary hip hop and pop music, working with many talented young musicians, including his regular collaborator Iba One, with whom he has performed to huge crowds at stadium gigs. Along with keyboards and beats, Sidiki still incorporates the kora into his work. Despite the recent upheaval in Mali, with jihadists taking control of two thirds of the country, the young musicians have defiantly continued to organise events and present a message of hope through their music and lyrics.

In the lineage of continuing the griot tradition from father to son, it is unusual for the musicians to be taught by their father. Both Toumani and Sidiki have learned their craft through pure dedication and hard work to master their instrument. The fact that Sidiki, who is in his early 20s, has carved out a successful career in his own right has clearly impressed his father, who has decided that his son would make a worthy collaborator.

Most of the tracks on the new album were selected by Toumani’s long-time producers Nick Gold and Lucy Durán from archived field recordings, and, in keeping with the griot tradition of storytelling, many were renamed to pay tribute to those involved in preserving Malian pride in recent years, including Hamadoun Toure (Secretary General of the International Telecommunications Union and President of the International Foundation for Communication for Malian Youth) and Toguna Industries (a Malian agriculture and waste management company, who helped ensure peasant farmers a bumper harvest last year). The one completely original composition, ‘Lampedusa’ was written as a tribute to more than 360 African migrants who died in a shipwreck near the Italian island of the same name in late 2013.

Toumani has always maintained respect for the kora in its pure, acoustic form, but his recordings have not been restricted to traditional music, and over the years he has made a number of high profile appearances on recordings with western musicians including Taj Mahal, Björk, Damon Albarn and Herbie Hancock, along with two albums with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré. His 1999 collaboration with Taj Mahal, Kulanjan, was described as a favourite by US President Barack Obama, who called it, "a beautiful melding of traditional blues and music from Mali by two great masters". Toumani also runs a kora workshop in Mali, displaying his deep knowledge of the instrument and its workings.

The 21 stringed kora comprises a large calabash bowl covered in goat hide with tree neck, the strings made from fishing line and played rested on a stand with both hands. The harp-like instrument offers almost unlimited possibility and on Toumani & Sidiki both players revel in the opportunity to simultaneously play rhythm, lead, bass and improvisation. The four traditional tunings: tomora ba, hardino, sauta and tomora mesengo, in addition to Toumani’s own Egyptian tuning, allow the musicians to multiply the variety of sounds.

Toumani and Sidiki’s recent rescheduled concert at Brighton Dome would have been the first of a two week UK tour to promote the album, but due to visa issues was postponed. When it finally takes place two weeks on from the original date, it is Sidiki who takes to the stage first and performs a song solo; confidently showing the crowd just what he can do on the kora for an exquisite introduction. Dressed in a black leather jacket and jeans Sidiki certainly looks the more rock & roll of the pair, as when Toumani joins him onstage the elder Diabaté is wearing traditional Malian dress, but there is little to separate them when it comes to their playing together. There is a difference in tone that helps separate their individual sounds as each take turns to perform dazzling trance inducing sections, among joyful flourishes of melody, while solid rhythms are maintained and songs from the new album take on a new life, as the improvised nature of the collaboration is revealed in extended versions of the songs.

Sidiki at times seems to be rapping out near tribal rhythms and his nimble fingers work double time on the strings, usually angelically clean sounding, to produce some harsher sounds through percussive basslines, accentuated by rings on his fingers tapping the wooden frame of the instrument for effect. It’s totally captivating and throughout the Diabaté’s cast the large seated audience under their spell.

We meet Sidiki and Toumani in their dressing room in Brighton following soundcheck. Sidiki spoke to us first with translation provided by Céline Graciet, as Toumani meticulously prepared his instrument for the evening’s performance, and he joined us halfway through.

When did you start playing kora?

Sidiki Diabaté: At home every child has a little kora. In our big family of griots we do not have toys, we have instruments and we grow up with them and we learn how to use them little by little.

How important was it growing up with musical parents?

SD: I was very, very lucky to be born in a big griot family. It was very easy for me to get into kora music and I am very lucky to have a father who is an international star.

You have performed together in the past, but this is your first tour as a duo with the new album. How has the tour been, playing this music live with your father?

SD: It has been very good learning all the time with my father. He is my father and my master and it’s not always easy, but I love this experience. It is like I am training all the time.

This music is obviously quite different from the hip hop music you play in Mali. Can you tell us a bit about your career and the music you make with Iba One and how it inspires the work you have done with your father?

SD: It’s not that different this music. I just used the kora because I started with the kora. I started with kora and I tried to play what I play on the kora on keyboard and the piano and I started from there and it worked out really well.

Is the work you have done with your father mostly improvised as a lot of the things he has done in the past have been? I know with a lot of these songs they are older pieces and you have been reworking them.

SD: We used the old and the new to create the future. My father plays in a way that is different from mine and this mix of generations creates a new kind of music.

How important is it for you to continue to play the kora and continue that family tradition?

SD: It’s very important. It is my identity. It is everything for me. It has to be transmitted from father to son across the generations. It is history carrying on. And I am the 72nd and there has to be a 73rd and 74th.

And you are a father yourself.

SD: Yes, my child is a year and half old. And he already has a little kora (laughs).

So they are the 73rd then! Your father has spoken about how Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding influenced his playing kora. Do you have the same with hip hop artists that inspire your playing that maybe come into your head?

SD: Ah yes! I like very much Mary J Blige, Alicia Keys, Dr Dre. There’s no doubt I have been inspired by a lot of different artists. I would love to imagine Alicia Keys and Mary J Blige with the kora together. That would be crazy.

It’s possible…

SD: It’s possible!

In your hip hop music what sort of Malian influences do you bring into the hip hop style?

SD: Like I said, I am a griot first. That is my identity. And in Mali I am called, "the little griot of rap". What I would like to do most is to create the beat of songs for artists like One Direction with the kora instead of the keyboard.

We have influences from all over the world, like [Spanish flamenco group and Toumani collaborators] Ketama and I really, really like Carlos Santana and a lot of albums that my father listened to when I was young. And MTV is big in Mali. That is how I discovered European music and that is what taught me how to play the keyboard and piano, because I was always watching TV to learn how to play those chords.

There’s a lot going on in Mali at the moment and it seems that the music you play is trying to have a positive message, and you played on the ‘On Veux La Paix (We Want Peace)’ song with lots of Malian artists together. Is this the same sort of message you want to promote with this music?

SD: That is what we have been doing since the beginning of the events. The soldiers used violence to wage war and we will have nothing. So our weapon is our messages, it is what we play. It is all we have. It is through our music that we communicate what we want to communicate. That is why we sang a song in Mali called ‘On Veux La Paix (We Want Peace)’. It is inspired from ‘We Are The World’ [by the USA For Africa supergroup]. We did it with other artists, Iba One, Gaspi, Memo All Star – excellent rappers from Mali and very good friends.

We composed it just for Mali. We love Mali, we are proud to be from Mali and we don’t want to lose it.

Even playing music came under threat and people were trying to stop musicians playing music that is such a big part of Malian culture. Did this impact your day to day life?

SD: Yes. There was no music. All the venues were closed because of the war. We resisted and we carried on organising events and concerts to show that we were supporting Mali.

We spoke to Sidiki and found a bit about his background, the hip hop he plays, this collaboration with you and the new album and he told us about the history of the griots in your family and kora playing. Can you elaborate on that?

Toumani Diabaté: Well, I would like to clarify that Sidiki is not only doing hip hop, he is a real pop star in Mali. He is a kora player, he plays keyboards, he’s a sound engineer, because he has his own recording studio and he is composing and is an arranger also at the same time and is not doing only the hip hop. He is doing different styles. Many musicians from Mali come to him to arrange their music with them.

Of course, 700 years ago we had an empire in West Africa called the Manden Empire and that was all of West Africa. The king was living in Mali and it was in Senegal, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger and some parts of Nigeria. And from that time there was not any written book to give a date to all the events happening in the empire, so the griot people from father to son keep the histories moving from father to son, they make a translation. And you know, the music is one of the best ways to make a communication. So we had instruments like the kora, like a balafon, like a traditional guitar. The men play, the women sing. The men are the storytellers and the music we play is composed when there is any event in the empire, the griot people compose a song. And the lyric in the songs is the meaning of the heavens, what is happening. For example if the king made a peace between two nations the griot people compose a song for that. If the king made a fight with another tribe then the griot people compose a song for that. So this is the role. We have thousands and thousands of songs in this griot repertoire until now.

I understand a lot of the new songs you have done on this record were unearthed by the producers Nick Gold and Lucy Durán, with songs with Malian roots and Gambian roots.

TD: Because it was the empire. At that time there was not any border between Mali, Guinnea, Gambia, Senegal… There was just one country – Mali, they called the Manden Empire.

And like you say, events make new songs.

TD: Yeah, that is right.

And you take the inspiration from these old songs but play them in a new style that has not been done before with new titles. Can you explain a bit about that process?

TD: Well, many people ’til now have been playing songs from the griot repertoire. Til now we did this to make it, took the music from the past and make it new, open it, for anyone’s self. So, the science for me is like the past, meets the present, for the future. That is the meaning of this record for me.

How have you found playing with your son?

TD: Well, it’s only enjoyable, it’s a pleasure and it is a blessing. Because, you have to be born griot, you cannot become a griot. And to be born a griot in the griot family is like a school. And in this school there are not any papers, not any pens to write it down. You have to open your mind to learn to play how the music, to learn how to keep the histories in your mind, to learn how to get archive, to learn how to be in the society. Because you are the ambassadors, like a journalist, but more than that. Because being in a wedding, the griot makes the connection between the families, to organise a wedding, to organise birth ceremonies, the griot is everywhere. Even the presidents of Mali, Guinnea Conakry they still have their own griot. Because the griot knows the histories of the family. Each family has its own griot who knows the history of these families. You see? So it is like that.

You can see musicians every day. If you are in London you can see musicians every day, you can see musicians everywhere. But what you cannot see every time is the family, father and son playing together coming from a musical family for 71, 72 generations. You cannot see that every day. So it is a blessing for me to play with my son.

Are there any of the song titles you can tell us about, why you have chosen them?

TD: I would like to say a special thanks to Nick Gold and Lucy Durán and also Jerry Boys the sound engineer who recorded it and the whole crew.

The idea was today, because of the high technology it is very, very easy for people who just know how to play one or two songs only on the kora and they claim, "I am a master kora player, I am a master African music player." But the kora is not a joke instrument, you know, it has history. Kora music has geography, has a legend, has many things. But you just play one, two songs and you shake your hand and say, "I am a master." Whose master are you? To be master you have to first learn to be a student. And then to become master later, it’s everywhere. People need to be student first and then to become a teacher or to become a professor. It is something very special like that. I need to clarify again, we took music that people forgot, and then brought it back today and made it new.

What made this the right time to play with your son and make this album?

TD: Well I think it’s time. I don’t want to do what other people usually do, helping their son, helping their brothers. I don’t want to do that. I think my son is a super pop star in Mali. He plays in the stadium for 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 people, everywhere in West Africa. But at the same time, he plays kora. He never forgets the tradition. Why the music he is doing is so successful, thank God, because he is mixing with kora music. With the kora, with the influences of the griot music, into the rap. So that makes sense. And the audiences understand what they are talking about, what they are singing. So that is one of the reasons, you know. So I said, now is the time for him to do something. And then people can feel it and everyone says, "Toumani, you were right, thank you very much."

I am not pushing him because he is son of Toumani Diabaté. No. I am an ambassador and I am happy to work. I am very happy to work. And I want everything to be clear, that is why I think it is time for my son to play. And then we play! Thank God.

And your first album was recorded in London, and now this album was recorded in London as well.

TD: Yes, this one was recorded in London, my first one was recorded in London. My second solo one was recorded in London too, New Ancient Strings [with Ballaké Sissoko]. I did a couple of different projects in London. I was so happy in a very good relaxed studio with Nick and it was fantastic, I enjoyed playing there.

I know in the past you have spoken about the collaborations you did, with Ali Farka Touré as an example, that were completely improvised, with very little planning or rehearsal, you just sat down and recorded what came out.

TD: Yes.

Is this a similar way that you worked on the new record?

TD: Yes, absolutely. It is more than what I did with Ali. Because Toumani is from the south of Mali, and Ali is from the north of Mali, peace for him. But Sidiki and Toumani, we are from the same family. It’s like a tree. Like a fruit coming from the same tree. But Ali and me, is different. It’s a different tree, with different kind of connections, between the south and north of Mali. This is a real connection.

You have played with western artists like Taj Mahal, Björk and Damon Albarn, how do you adapt your style to play with them?

TD: Well, it’s different, but not different playing playing with these people. I’d like to thank God and say thanks to those musicians, Björk, Damon, Taj Mahal, for the collaboration, because they have open hearts and open minds, playing with the different music. What I do when I play with all of those great musicians, artists and pop stars, I don’t play their music. They play their own music. They say, "Look Toumani, this is my music. I want you to play on this." I listen to that and I play my music also, to make a connection with this music, so it will become a new music. They play me music, I play my music, we put it together and that is new music. That is what I did with all of those guys.

I was so happy to play with Björk at the Glastonbury Festival on the night, a few years ago [in 2007]. And there was 100,000 people there. That was amazing.

Playing Malian music!

TD: Yes, connected with Björk’s music, fantastic.

Is this collaboration with Sidiki something you will continue?

TD: Absolutely. And Sidiki, he wants to play with the One Direction, and if anyone is going to make this connection, or with Alicia Keys, or these kind of pop stars it is him. He is really so excited to play with these musicians. He is a really good composer and a very good kora player, so I hope they will hear this message, understand this and try to find us to do something.

We’ll put the word out!

TD: Right. This is the way! Because that makes sense for the collaboration between western and African also. So, why not!

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