This is Toumani Diabaté’s second release in just over six months, but whereas last year’s Grammy-award winning album with Ali Farka Touré showcased his extraordinary kora playing as part of an acoustic duet, on this latest recording it is a part of a much fuller band sound. The Symmetric Orchestra is a loose conglomeration of West African musicians who perform on Friday nights at the Hogon bar’s open session in Mali’s capital Bamako, and they produce a beguiling blend of dance-band music and traditional ensemble playing.
Diabaté’s peerless improvisational kora work is present throughout, as you would hope. But rather than dominate proceedings, it skips between guitar, ngoni, balafon, the rattling percussion of the Senegalese sabar drum, a whole host of vocalists (there are five different lead singers on the nine tracks), and a startlingly punchy brass section.
Those horns greet us with funky blasts on the opening song Toumani, and trade licks with kora and electric guitar on the standout Ya Fama (which features the great Kassy Mady Diabaté on lead vocal) as well as invigorating an exhilarating Afro-Cuban workout (helpfully entitled Salsa). But the brass section (and our dancing feet) are given a rest on a handful of tracks, which means that devotees of the more reflective Mandé sound are catered for as well, most notably on the sublime Mamadou Diaby where balafon, kora and male and female choruses come together in a seductive adaptation of a classic Gambian composition.
The selection is rounded-off by a roots-to-jazz-funk special that, given the right exposure, could emulate the success of Mory Kanté’s 80s club hit Yeké Yeké.
Symmetry describes the balance between tradition and modernity, and between the various countries that used to constitute the Mandé Empire. With that template in mind, Toumani Diabaté is mining a rich vein of creativity and experimentation right now – not just his own, but that of the people around him. We can only wait and wonder what the great man will come up with next.