Toumani Diabate in the WNYC Studio.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images
Toumani Diabate, seen here in a 2006 concert in Hungary, is set to release his first solo album in more than 20 years.
The kora is a 21-string harp-lute instrument that has been played in Africa for centuries. It was the signature of the medieval Manding empire, which populated West Africa from the 13th to the 16th centuries.
It's also now a signature of Bjork, who included the kora on a song from her latest album, Volta. While working on the disc, Bjork went to Mali to record with none other than the top kora player in the world: Toumani Diabate.
Diabate has brought the kora to pop music, African orchestras, flamenco, jazz, and the blues. But his new album, called The Mande Variations, features the instrument solo. He performs songs from his new album in the WNYC studios.
Toumani Diabate comes from a long line of kora-playing griots — he is preceded by 71 generations. According to Diabate, the music on his new album is an ancient classical music, one that predates Beethoven and Mozart by centuries.
Of course, the music of Mande griots also serves to perpetuate oral history. "We are storytellers, so we are the memory of Manding Empire," Diabate says. "We are the archive."
The Mande Variations is something of a departure from his last album. Boulevard de L'Independance, released in 2006, featured backing from Diabate's large ensemble, called the Symmetric Orchestra. But as Diabate explains, the kora is the only instrument in the Symmetric Orchestra which can play three parts: bass, melody, and improvisation.
Though he comes from musical lineage, Diabate says he is a self-taught musician. "Nobody [had] been teaching me to play kora," he says. "The kora was gift from God to me, and I'm very proud for that."
One must be born into a griot family to learn music, Diabate says. But he says he's proud to uphold the responsibility.
"The griot family is a school — it's a school without any pen," Diabate says. "You don't have to take a pen and papers and write [anything] down. There you have to learn, have to be with the people, and have to make communication, because we are the ambassadors of the culture."