FEBRUARY 20TH, 2011
A couple weeks ago, John Schaefer of WNYC radio, declared on air that Toumani Diabaté was the number one kora player in the world and that Ballaké Cissoko was number two. It is a statement that could only have come from an ignorant, white supremacist who is infinitely not qualified to make such a ranking. I am sure he is not alone in such thinking. There are many like him who think that the one [or two] from any African country, lucky enough to have album releases and concerts in Europe and North America, must be the best from that particular country. The trouble with Schaefer [and his ilk] is that he wouldn’t know a Sila Ba from a Tiliji if they both managed to penetrate the wax to his inner ear, but he still feels no shame in pontificating like an expert. In Mali, where it actually counts, the discourse on the merits and skill of dièliw takes place among the ngaraw. They will no doubt add the name Diabaté Mamadou to any talk on the topic of great korafolaw.
Diabaté is back with a new CD on the market entitled “Courage”. Whereas the Grammy award winning “Douga Mansa” was a solo kora recording, this is an ensemble effort. If one criterion of measurement is how swiftly and deftly one can produce dazzling arpeggi, then Diabaté has few peers. On almost every composition, this virtuosity is displayed. Just listen to his star turn on “Humanity”. If this playing were to be written for sheet music, a symbol denoting half of a semiquaver would have to be invented if there isn’t one already. And what of his playing on “Humanity”? His solo here is transformative on a cellular level. You will find your pores opening, the hairs on your nape will stand erect. You will eyeball your CD player with suspicion that there is a ghost in the machine. You will exclaim, “Hé Madou! Fara!” as he lays into the instrument, unleashed. I mean, his pyrotechnics could put the fireworks in a 4th of July display in the shade. But it’s not just this technical display that dazzles. He doesn’t have to show that he can cram two hundred notes into a bar to show how good he is. No. He can finesse too. He can change tempi from adagio to allegro to presto. Or he can go from pianissimo to forte to achieve his desired effect on the emotions of the listener. On mid-tempo groves like “Macky” & stately measures like “Laban Dioro” Diabaté still allows the most melodious roulades to cascade from his fingers, seemingly without end, but with feeling. The duet of Diabaté on kora & Abou Cissoko on dièlin’goni in the latter is irresistible. Two of the compositions are based on traditional tracks and the rest are Diabate’s own marvelous originals. Even more amazing is his skill at arrangement. He arranged all eleven tracks. One can follow the intellectualisation of the process and appreciate the perfectly executed outcome. Except for acoustic bass, it’s an ensemble of Malian instruments; dièlin’goni, bala, [what the white people call balafon] kora, dièmbé and calabash. The dynamic harmony and interplay is reminiscent of Ballaké Cissoko’s “Tomora”. It’s really interesting to hear how the dièlin’goni adapts to music that is diatonic as opposed to pentatonic. Its silvery twang shines in compositions such as “Humanity” On “Diya Yé Bana”, the balafola; Lassana Fodé Diabaté, gets his star turn. Lovely improvisation. And I can not forbear but to comment on the tumbao that the acoustic bass lends to all the numbers. A perfect under-girding to be sure. From stately, to swinging to downright danceable, the range of colours and shades of the collection, the deft execution on a perfectly clear recording, all this makes “Courage” a winner and proves that the Grammy award, bestowed upon Diabaté in 2010 was thoroughly merited.
Listening to this album was very cathartic for this reviewer. This music washed away most of my angst about the future of African music. This album, and others of like quality, really does a lot to balance, if not eclipse the wealth of rubbish coming from the continent these days. All one has to do to stay sane, is avoid listening to them. But there is no doubt about it. Mali is at the avantgarde of the best African music these days. In fact, it has been so for some time. And when the venerable ngaraw gather to discuss the state of dièliya and great korafolaw, the name Mamadou Diabaté dit Dièlika Dian will be one among many. For Mali has many great korafolaw, whether John Schaefer knows who they are or not.