Scottish fans of the undisputed “King of the Kora” had waited for this moment. Toumani Diabaté had been due to appear at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall around a year ago in autumn 2010 as part of the Afrocubism project with Cuban Son giant, Eliades Ochoa. However, the winter weather had conspired against him and the superstar of Malian music had been stranded in Paris.
As he told us in his charming Francophone West African-accented English, Toumani is the latest in 71 generations of kora players. He seemed keen to explain this heritage to his audience and although a surprisingly few number of them indicated that they had never seen a kora before, he took time to explain his instrument and how it creates its unique sound.
The kora is a traditional West African stringed instrument constructed from a calabash (gourd) with a cow hide resonator. It has 21 strings (10+11) which are played only by both thumbs and forefingers. A talented kora player can play the bass line with his left thumb and forefinger while plucking a melody with his right and improvising in addition as he (there are few female kora players) goes along. Like Toumani, kora players typically come from jali (in French, ‘griot’) heritage of the Mandinka nationality. As well as musicians, they are storytellers and oral historians. This tradition served Toumani well, as his willingness to explain his cultural heritage and engage with the audience made the performance more accessible and enjoyable.
Toumani was accompanied on some of the tracks he played by a guitarist, bassist and drummer. As he explained, it is difficult to achieve a rounded sound with a traditional instrument in the middle of that electronic and amplified mix, but the beautiful cascading rhythms of the kora always shone through. They reminded me of water dripping and flowing, which seems ironic given the arid climates which have given us the kora, but perhaps that is part of the charm.
As well as tracks from his early time in the UK in the late 80s, Toumani played some of his most well-known pieces, which were originally collaborations with Ali Farka Touré on the Grammy award-winning album, In the Heart of the Moon, which was released in 2005, the year before Farka Touré elder died. Towards the end of the set, he played a new composition, which he said was inspired by our modern times where we are obsessed with the economy and humanity seems to have been forgotten. As Toumani asked, if man prints banknotes, then how can money have more value than man?
Although very appreciative, the audience in the Usher Hall was hardly effusive, until the encore, by which time it was too late. Despite the best attempts of a Diabaté nephew to bring his fellow spectators to their feet, at one point his uncle had to ask, “Are you still there, Edinburgh?” Such is the challenge of bringing live, intimate, traditional music to a global audience in several thousand-seater venues. However, Toumani Diabaté can have been in no doubt about how eagerly awaited this concert had been: finally, at the end the whole of the Usher Hall was on its feet.
© Lynn Sheppard
A version of this review also appears on my other blog: www.mikanqueenreviews4U.wordpress.com