June 11, 2014
Sounds Of Mali In England’s Deep North
I want a Kora. As a part time musician, I have a fair old collection of instruments. These include seven guitars, a couple of keyboards, a mandolin, a clarinet, a small harp, and lots of odd bits and pieces from all over the world. Some of them I can almost play, others I keep just for the joy of owning them. The sudden Kora obsession hit me at a concert I attended last night. I don’t go to a lot of gigs these days and when I do, I prefer the smaller, more intimate venues. Last night’s show was at the Howard Assembly Rooms in the Northern English city of Leeds. The Rooms are part of the larger Opera North building and are the perfect setting for performances by acoustic artists. The musicians were Malian Kora players Toumani Diabate and his son Sidiki. Sitting in the front row, I was able to get great views of the instruments and the techniques. It was a stunning performance. Toumani is the acknowledged master of the Kora, but son Sidiki is pushing him hard. Together they take it to a new level. Kora duets are are a rare thing.
The Kora is large, stringed instrument that looks a little like a cross between a lute and a harp. The body is made from a dried calabash — a squash-like plant that produces a large bowl-shaped gourd. Covered in cow hide, this then acts as a resonator and gives the Kora a rich sound with surprisingly deep bass notes and clear bright higher pitches. The 21 strings allow for a wide range of pitch. It’s a beautiful thing, similar in some ways to a sitar. What really brings it to life, of course, is the skill of the player, and it was this that made last night so special. Just as Sidiki learned from his father, Toumani was taught by his own father, also called Sidiki. But it goes back a lot further than that. The musical tradition that the Diabates carry forward is part of the “griot” culture of West Africa, a rich oral and musical tradition passed down the paternal line for centuries. As Toumani explained, son Sidiki is the 72nd generation to receive this long, unbroken and unwritten lore. The true griot is a highly regarded man with a deep knowledge of his ancestors and their history; the battles, the hunting, the births and the deaths of countless ancestors. The songs and stories he has learned by heart tell of that history and are part of it. He is a living library where no words are written, a gifted orator, singer, and poet and often a musician, too. Many were even advisors to kings. Their stories go back to the beginnings of the great Malian Empire in the 14th century.
So the magical night was more than music. These two great musicians brought a little bit of Africa into the English night. Most of the pieces were from their new album, which is a great introduction to the hypnotic world of the Kora and the stories behind it.
Image Credit: ToumaniAndSidiki.com