African rhapsody


He is probably the only Grammy award winner with an unbroken 70 generations of musicians behind him.

Melody maker West African singer Toumani Diabate. PHOTO BY AUTHORToumani Diabaté is among the most influential musicians to emerge out of West Africa. Coming from a long family line of exceptional griots (hereditary musicians and historians), Toumani is however the first to attain world renown. He plays the 21-stringed kora, a harp/lute unique to West Africa. More than any other kora player, it is Toumani who ripped the kora out of the West African oblivion and brought it to the global stage. In a career spanning 40 years, he has come through as an exceptional performer. His creativity and virtuosity has amazed audiences around the world. He has shown the world that the kora can rival the world’s greatest instruments.

Toumani was born in the mid-sixties in Bamako, the capital of Mali. His father was the legendary Sidiki Diabaté, who was dubbed ‘King of Kora’ at the prestigious international Black Arts Festival in 1977. After Mali became independent in 1960, Sidiki was invited to join the Ensemble National Instrumental — a government-sponsored group formed to celebrate the richness of Malian culture — along with his first wife, Toumani’s mother, singer Nene Koita.

The young Toumani did not get much time to be trained by his busy parents, but with music running in his blood and a burning passion for music, genius came to him naturally. Already hailed as a child prodigy, his first public performance at the age of 13 earned him the title, ‘Prince of Kora’. He was initially recruited by the Malian Government to encourage regional ensembles to represent local traditions. In 1984, Toumani moved on and joined a group of brilliant young musicians who accompanied Kandia Kouyate, the most powerful and famous female griot singer in Mali.

Various influences

While still in his teens, he toured most of Africa and came under the influence of western sounds, notably soul music. The seventies brought in the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and several other American and British rock acts. This, along with the evolving sound of Bamako’s modern ensembles, shaped much of Toumani’s emerging musical career.

More than anything else, his brilliant idea of making the kora a solo instrument and painstakingly devising a way to play bass, rhythm and solo all at the same time was what catapulted him to the world stage.

Toumani came to Europe in 1986 accompanying Malian singer Ousmane Sacko, but ended up staying in London for several months. It was then that he recorded his first solo album, Kaira. His Solo Kora album came to be regarded as ‘ground breaking’ and remains a bestseller to date. Toumani also made his first appearance at the prestigious WOMAD festival to a rousing reception, all this at the age of just 21. He also collaborated actively with several musicians. The London experience opened him up to Indian Classical Music. He played with several Indian artistes along with his band and even did a 10-city concert tour. Sarod, tabla and other instruments introduced him to the jugalbandi style of music that has now become a distinguishing feature of his performances.


His collaboration with artists from around the world contributed immensely to enrich his music. The first of the collaborations to translate into a recording was with the Spanish flamenco group, Ketama. Toumani was impressed at their understating of the rhythmic and intricate complexities of his music that he set about recording the album, Songhai, with pieces like Jarabi, which is a beautiful amalgamation of the kora and flamenco. Toumani then formed the Symmetric Orchestra to represent  the symmetry between traditional and modern forms.

For this, he collaborated with musicians in Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Mali. His several collaborations have led to albums like Boulevard de l’Indépendance, Djelika, Songhai2 and a Kora duet album with Ballake Sissoko, called New Ancient Strings. Toumani’s constant need to experiment and evolve led to several other collaborations and albums like Kulanjan and Malicool. However, it was In the Heart of the Moon, recorded with Ali Farka Touré, that won him the Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album in 2006.

In recent years, Toumani has been enjoying recognition for his contribution to the development of kora. In 2004, he received the Zyriab des Virtuoses, a UNESCO prize awarded at the Mawazine Festival. He is the first African ever to have received this prize. Toumani is still a vital member of the Malian musical community and continues to be a positive influence on the new generation. Talking about his meteoric rise and his music, Toumani says he feels humbled by his success. “It is a gift from god. So many talented musicians never go beyond their borders or record a successful album,” he adds.

Toumani was in India recently, touring with fellow Grammy winner Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt, as part of the ICCR and UNAIDS concert series for which he is the UN goodwill ambassador.

Though this is his first ever visit to India, Toumani has had a long association with the cultural heritage of India. He even relives his younger days when he watched Bollywood movies and sung Hindi songs. He is deeply reverent of Indian culture and finds common grounds with his country here. ”Both India and Africa have taken the effort to keep their cultures alive,” he says. He is also very appreciative of the Indian audiences and says, “They know their music well and have a lot of respect for musicians.” Talking about further collaborations with Indian artistes, he says, “I am definitely looking forward to that.” If it happens, then India will get to see a lot more of the master.

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