Toumani Diabate's new album, The Mande Variations, is his first solo release in more than 20 years.
The West African harp called the kora has 21 strings. It's a difficult instrument to master, and the best players perform with a technique, nuance and repertoire comparable to those of a concert pianist. The greatest living kora player today is, by most accounts, Toumani Diabate of Mali. He has just released a solo kora album called The Mande Variations.
This is how it all started for Diabate: just the man and his instrument. Diabate made his debut 20 years ago with the world's first solo kora CD, Kaira. Among the Mande people of West Africa, the kora is for griots, historians whose ancestors once enlightened the courts of Mande kings. Mande music has always been first and foremost an art of narrative. Diabate's career has demonstrated that the kora can recount history on its own.
On "Kaounding Cissoko," Diabate reinterprets a classic song in the kora repertoire, "Alla l'a 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.
Diabate's solo return is a welcome surprise, for no two of his recordings have ever reprised the same format. He's done duos and trios, and fronted a big Malian band. He's also made collaborative forays into jazz, blues and pop with everyone from Roswell Rudd and Taj Mahal to Bjork.
Diabate has certain favorite songs he likes to re-adapt in various settings, like the love song "Diaraby." Back in 1988, he spun it as flamenco with the Spanish group Ketama. The same song on Mande Variations is slower, deeper: the most subtle of Diabate's many renditions.
In the hands of a master like Diabate, the kora belongs to an African classical art form that has been evolving and growing for hundreds of years. With this work, Diabate defines the very state of that art.