Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mali Monday #9: Toumani Diabaté, The Mandé Variations

Nonesuch/World Circuit

[Now expanded to include some comments on the sound of this instrument.]

("Monday?" you're thinking. Yeah, yeah. School. Other blog. Dog-walking. Lay off already, and enjoy this.)

For the next few Mali Mondays, I'll be posting on specific albums that I find particularly moving and that you might, as well. Some of those future posts will be on samplers; I want to begin, though, with an album only a couple of months old.

I have posted on Diabaté before. He is by consensus the world's greatest player of the kora, the 21-string west African harp. Diabaté's stature is due not just to his virtuosity but also to how he has expanded the kora's repertoire (this year he is touring with Bjork) without betraying its traditions that reach back centuries. The Mandé Variations isn't a retrospective, in the usual sense, of Diabaté's career; it is, instead, something more like a collection of songs that demonstrates in miniature his contributions to kora playing--both the deepening of its traditions and the expanding of the horizons of those traditions. In other words, the album is by Diabaté, but its subject is the kora.

The three pieces I've selected for this post should give an indication of this album's range. They are long, as are all the songs on the album (the shortest one is 5:45), but they are far from tedious. Also, this is an instrumental album, which may be an advantage for those of us who, as they've listened to other Mali Monday musical selections, have found ourselves wondering just what we've been listening to. (Just to reassure on that point: the vast majority of Malian music's lyrics are affirming songs about such things as the importance of community, social cohesion, the value of work on behalf of the nation, pleas for greater freedom for women . . . emo or death-metal, it is not.) Finally, the sound: just Diabaté and his kora: rich, flowing, repeating melodic phrases dominated by the mid-range and bass punctuated by lightning-fast glissandos of high-end notes. He plays two different koras, each with a different tuning, depending on the song. What's fascinating to me about its sound is the relative prominence (compared to other harp-like instruments) of the bass--of course, that has to do with the fact that the kora has only about a quarter half the number of strings that harps used in Western orchestras have. It's not a "dreamy" sound of the sort associated with those harps; it's a more beat-heavy sound, though not as overtly percussive as Issa Bagayogo's kamele n'goni.

"Djourou Kara Nany" (6:53). According to Diabaté's father, this is the Arabic name for Alexander the Great. This suggests that this song is quite old indeed.

"Ali Farka Touré" (6:20): This piece is quite unusual in that it was completely improvised in the studio, "inspired by my feelings of sadness but admiration for the man."

"Cantelowes" (6:57): Dedicated to a friend in whose house on Cantelowes Road in London Diabaté stayed on his first visit to the UK, it's a reworking and rerecording of a song from his first album for solo kora, Kaira, but with a familiar musical surprise awaiting the listener at its opening.

If you like what you've heard, I recommend buying from the Nonesuch website. From them, not only do you get the CD (whose booklet is wonderfully informative not just on the songs but also on kora tradition and instruments), you also get free mp3 downloads of the album. Even with the CD on sale at Amazon for $13 and downloads for $8.99 (which, however, doesn't include the CD's opening song), you'd end up paying several dollars more if you wanted both. If I could do it over again . . .

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