BY Jace Clayton in Culture Digest | 05 MAY 08
Featured in
Issue 115

The Mandé Variations

Toumani Diabaté (World Circuit, 2008)

BY Jace Clayton in Culture Digest | 05 MAY 08

Toumani Diabaté (centre) with The Symmetric Orchestra, Bamako, 2004

Bearers of an oral tradition surf Heraclitean waters of the changing same. West African griots (think bard, neighbourhood historian and itinerant songster) tell traditional stories, but unless these are constantly renewed – grafted with contemporary events, local colour and narrative shifts, refitted across tongues – the tradition turns static, falls from today’s news into folklore. Enter Toumani Diabaté, a lifelong Bamako resident who can trace his griot roots back 71 generations (griotdom is hereditary). His gorgeous new album The Mandé Variations demonstrates that a millennium of oral tradition is powerful cosmopolitanism; make any attempt to oppose tradition with modernity and you’ll miss out on the stunning freedoms embodied in his work.

From the Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra DVD

Diabaté made the world’s first solo kora album 20 years ago, when, as a 21-year-old Malian, he visited London for the first time. The Mandé Variations is his second solo outing. In the interim Diabaté has recorded several releases with a full band, won a Grammy for his duo album with Ali Farka Touré, collaborated with Björk and done much to make this instrument as iconically ‘African’ as a djembe drum. The kora is a 21-string West African harp built from a calabash gourd strung with nylon fishing line. Diabaté achieves his earthy-ethereal tone by adding Western-style harp strings to the mix. The sound a kora makes in his hand is like sunshine dappled through tree leaves: high and warm and flowing. Notes cascade. Time eddies.

This is the kind of album that you put on as background music only to find yourself immersed, following an intricate melodic riff (played on one hand) as it dances around a relaxed bass figure (played on the other). Close-up microphones capture the instrument’s full musicality, incidental noises included. The sound-space is as intimate as Britney Spears’ last album was impersonal.

An unhurried emotional song such as ‘Elyne Road’ could teach Gymnopédies-era Erik Satie a thing or two about timing subtleties. UB40’s ‘Kingston Town’ inspired the lead melody, which reminded Diabaté of a Bamama saying: ‘You are as beautiful as the honey that sweetens porridge.’ Reggae pop meets centuries-old sweet talk, and we get a flowing harp piece that suspends time as it dances through it. Each song here possesses a fantastic, polyglot genealogy, at once Malian and international.

When the closing track, ‘Cantelowes’, begins by referencing an early Diabaté classic that itself quotes Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Western ears get a recognizable glimmer of the vast intertextuality through which Diabaté operates. Flamenco aficionados will hear how the gypsy finger-picking has influenced his playing, and students of the sitar may note compositional ideas absorbed from Indian classical music.

Both fans and detractors of globalization in music tend to see it as a new phenomenon, somehow tethered to the electronic: drum machines, cheesy synthesizers, remix culture. Listening carefully to the acoustic beauty of The Mandé Variations suggests a different tack. There’s something radical about refusing to erect a line between an ancient locality and a modern cosmopolis, about letting 71 generations of collective memory speak and listen today. ‘The griot’s role is making communication between people,’ explains Diabaté, ‘but not just historical communication. In Mali I can work in the traditional way; elsewhere I can work in a different way. Why not?’

Jace Clayton is a musician and writer. His book Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.