The Soul of Mali
Toumani Diabaté, playing The Mandé Variations
Presented by the World Music Institute
at the Skirball Ctr, New York University
It isn't likely that one musician with one instrument can hold the attention
of an audience for 75 minutes, but Toumani Diabaté, playing the kora,
does more than that. He enchants us; we lose a sense of time. He plays with
extraordinary subtlety, reflecting a range of delicate emotions.
The kora looks like a large pumpkin with a vertical neck like a guitar. It has 22 strings in two parallel rows. The strings aren't flat against the wood; they line up moving away from it, so the 11th string is ten times further from the wood than is the first. The artist sat behind it, in a gorgeous white kaftan.
Diabaté comes from a family of Malian griot musicians. He's contributed greatly to creating a musical identity for Mali and to the recognition of the kora as a solo instrument. While his work is firmly rooted in the Mali tradition, it acknowledges the influence of other genres, some modern. But it never sounds like it's been compromised.
We might call this music a type of jazz - it isn't written down. "My music is from 700 years ago," he tells us. He opened with a song like a joyous waterfall, and moved on to a moody piece, with a subtle, bittersweet sense of loss. Sometimes he uses a steady treble beat, with a contrapuntal lead and an occasional low note on the beat, a reminder of The Constant Presence. Sometimes there are crescendos that splash like a brook on a rock. The riffs escape from the limitations of beat, and narrow to a flood of single notes.
A singer, Baila Soumano, joined him for only the last song, wearing a print-on-black robe with a white headpiece. Her singing is astounding. Her voice sometimes has tripping patter, and sometimes sounds like a glottal adhan. It's unmistakably related to the enchanting African chorus singing that defies time by refusing to finish; it establishes itself, repeats, and only stops after stating that it's eternal.
What an enormous contribution the World Music Institute makes in bringing us work like this!