Twenty years - and many fascinating diversions - after a cherubic twenty-something Toumani Diabaté stunned us all with his sparkling debut solo kora album Kaira, comes the long-awaited follow-up.
If you've seen or heard the man before, you'll know what to expect - a mastery of his instrument that's darned near unrivalled in roots music, a flowing, breathless lyricism to his playing, and a rhythmic sophistication that leaves the listener doubting the sleeve-notes' claims about the album having been recorded without overdubs.
But as the title suggests, there's a strong improvisational flavour to The Mandé Variations, traditional melodies are often briefly flirted with (at least two Kaira tunes are revisited) before Toumani embarks on one of his rippling melodic runs, or (as often as not) brings a subtle, introspective mood to proceedings.
There is no concession to time here, the shortest track clocking in at just under six minutes, and it takes opener Si Naani ten and a half to unfold, shower the listener in delicate, pulsing waves of notes and counter-rhythm, before resolving itself into a tender 'solo' finish.
In contrast, El Nabiyouna is all extemporisation, a Diabaté duet where he pulls out a sequence of fluid descending lines in answer to his own sombre, reflective prompts.
Elsewhere, Ismael Drame is more familiar in style, a straight, rolling blues that takes a neat diversion into the Mandé standard Miniyamba; and Ali Farka Touré is reminiscent of Diabaté‘s mellow duets with the great Malian guitarist.
Aside from a playful extract from the theme from The Good, the Bad and The Ugly that opens final track Cantelowes, this is a serious, almost classical recording that constantly brings to mind adjectives such as “magisterial” and “stately“, with the potential detachment of artist from listener that could be implied by those words. And it is the case that The Mandé Variations requires the undivided attention of the listener (it doesn’t creep up and seduce in the way that In The Heart of the Moon did, for example) - it's mood music, albeit of the very highest order.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.