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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The West African harp called the Kora is difficult to master. It has 21 strings, and the best players must have techniques similar to a concert pianist. By many accounts, the greatest living Kora player is Toumani Diabate. He's from Mali. He's just released a solo album called the "The Mande Variations."

Banning Eyre has this review.

(Soundbite of kora playing)

BANNING EYRE: This is how it all started for Toumani Diabate, just the man and his instrument. Diabate debuts 20 years ago with the world's first solo kora CD, "Kaira."

Among the Mande people of West Africa, the kora is for griots, traditional praise historians whose ancestors once enlightened the courts of Mande kings. Mande music has always been first and foremost an art of narrative, of words. Diabate's career has demonstrated that the kora can recount history all on its own.

(Soundbite of song "Alla L'Aa Ke")

EYRE: This is Diabate reinterpreting a classic song in the kora repertoire, "Alla L'Aa Ke," a piece he also recorded on that first solo album 20 years ago. Mande music puts a high premium on innovation and improvisation, so when Diabate comes back to this song, it's not unlike a venerable jazzman revisiting and reinventing, say, a Cole Porter standard.

(Soundbite of song "Alla L'Aa Ke")

EYRE: Diabate's return to solo recording is a welcome surprise, for no two of his albums have ever reprieved the same format. He's done duos, trios, fronted a big Malian band, not to mention his collaborative forays into jazz, blues and pop with everyone from Roswell Rudd and Taj Mahal to Bjork.

Diabate has certain fetish songs he likes to re-adapt in various settings, like the love song "Diaraby." Here he is spinning it as flamenco with the Spanish group Ketama back in 1988.

(Soundbite of song "Diaraby")

EYRE: The same song on the new "Mande Variations" CD is slower, deeper — the most subtle of Diabate's many renditions.

(Soundbite of song "Diaraby")

EYRE: In the hands of a master like Diabate, the kora belongs to an African classical art form, one that's been evolving and growing for hundreds of years. With this work, Diabate defines the very state of that art.

BLOCK: Banning Eyre is senior editor of Afropop.org. The album is by Toumani Diabate, it's called "The Mande Variations." You can hear songs from that CD at npr.org/music.

(Soundbite of song "Diaraby")

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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