If you are only aware of Toumani Diabate’s kora playing through his recent World Circuit albums, Boulevard de L’Independence and Mande Variations, journalist Nigel Williamson has compiled this handy, well-sequenced and -presented introduction to the peerless output of possibly the greatest individual musician of our generation.
The double-CD selection is split evenly between the two sides of Diabaté. CD one showcases the relatively unadorned, traditional Toumani (as solo or as part of a duet or trio), and the second CD finds him in ensemble mode, pushing the range of his instrument into previously unchartered territory.
To that first CD first, which has two tracks from the young Toumani’s debut release in 1988, Kaira, on which the twenty-three year old prodigy took the kora into solo mode for the first time with a one-take work weaving patterns of timeless, intricately-threaded genius. Ten years later came New Ancient Strings, Toumani and Ballaké Sissoko’s echoing, empathetic update of their fathers’ collaborations (there’s also the shimmering beauty of Kanou from a more recent collaboration between the two). Between those two releases came the oft-overlooked Djelika, an album of stunning, playful inter-locking Mande rhythms by a Malian super-group (before we even realised all of them were super) comprising Toumani, ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté and Keletigui Diabaté on balafon.
Aside from a sparkling, spacey duet with guitarist Vieux Farka Touré - a more than adequate surrogate for that other landmark World Circuit release, the collaboration with Vieux’s father Ali, In the Heart of the Moon - the second CD is split between two collaborations. Kulanjan – on which Toumani provided sweetly expressive support to the cast of Malian greats that leavened Taj Mahal’s gruff-and-ready blues – is well-represented by the range of four tracks chosen. The first of the Songhai albums with flamenco group Ketama and double-bassist Danny Thompson was a surprisingly natural, fluid fit, Diabaté probably as melodically sinuous on the three tracks chosen here as anywhere else in the collection. However, the slightly less successful second Songhai album feels slightly over-represented with its three tracks, although this double-CD package is designed to balance the great man’s full range of output, and the careful way Williamson has sequenced the tunes makes that a minor quibble. There surely won’t be a better individual artist collection this year than the one put together here.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine