Toumani Diabaté: The Mandé Variations

Music Reviews Toumani Diabate
Toumani Diabaté: The Mandé Variations

Mali’s reigning musical magician uncorks another genie from his bottle

If the only reason Western pop fans know anything about Malian music or genius-level kora player Toumani Diabaté is because of world-beat hitchhikers such as Blur’s Damon Albarn (whose 2002 Oxfam benefit release Mali Music includes collaborations with Diabaté and several of his master-level countrymen), then shame on us all. The kora is a 21-string harp fashioned from an African bottle gourd, cut in half and then fitted with cow skin to create a resonator. Players at Diabaté’s level of accomplishment are capable of making the instrument sound as much like flamenco- or Delta-blues guitar as a harp, and on his second true solo release since issuing his 1988 debut at age 23, Diabaté’s magic hands coax an amazing array of voices from his instrument. His songs emulate a cascading waterfall (“Elyne Road,” inspired by UB40’s “Kingston Town”), ants scurrying across a dusty road (the impossibly fast “Ali Farka Toure,” an homage to his late mentor) and Nick Drake on a meth jag (“Kaounding Cissoko,” “Cantelowes”), never ceasing to astound with his unique combination of virtuosity and soul. Whether you’ve heard of Diabaté doesn’t matter; you need only to hear him to understand his diabolical wizardry.

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