Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, like father like son
New album, Toumani & Sidiki
Sometimes it’s a good idea to keep things in the family, especially when it involves kora virtuosos in the shape of Malian master Toumani Diabaté and his talented son Sidiki, the Bamako-based rap star. Their kora kinship, inspired by 72 generations of griots, serves up a superb sound.
Despite filling the 20,000 seats in Bamako stadium, producing a string of hits, and holding the distinction of best beat maker of the year in Mali, when he turned up to record at the studio, Sidiki was nervous about playing with one particular man: Toumani Diabaté. “When I sat down to tune my kora, I was shaking inside. I was really apprehensive about recording with such a legend,” admitted the kora prince, already a skilled player of the 21-string harp at just 24 years old.
Yet the legend himself, who has played with Ali Farka Touré, Taj Mahal, Björk and Damon Albarn and won two Grammies, displayed all the concern of a typical father. “He realised that something was wrong straight away. I told him that I was nervous,” said Sidiki. “He laughed and said to me: Listen, you have your own personality. Ignore the pressure, simply play it your own way! His words put me at ease and we got started. And wow, it was amazing!”
In between the supple strings and skilled finger work, their playing is primarily a discussion between two musicians from the Mandinka tradition. Sidiki and Toumani are unusual in that they can both simultaneously play bass and melodies on the kora, but each brings his own language and experience. “Music is born from experience, it’s not just about plucking strings or placing silences,” explains Sidiki. “I’m still my father’s pupil, and his playing and tunes can make me cry. But I come from a hot-blooded generation, and we like to go to clubs too. Rap and my experience as a hip hop producer have opened my eyes to other types of music. It’s difficult to explain, but it influences my kora playing, because I’m a mix of generations.” On this acoustic disc, called simply Toumani et Sidiki, the Diabatés delve into an imaginary Malian world that also touches on current events.
"The track Lampedusa is about the injustice of North-South relationships. As well as the island where so many clandestine immigrants wash ashore from Africa, I’m thinking about those who die at sea and all the artists whose tours are cancelled for want of a visa. Today, in the West, a piece of paper is more important than human life," complained Toumani, who also pays tribute to a figure from the new ACI 2000 neighbourhood in Bamako, Mr Diaby. Like many other Malians, he, “sends money back to his village to build wells and schools.”
Another track, Rachid Ouiguini, is about, "an Algerian scientist, as a reminder that over and above the crisis in the north and the jihadists, the relationship between Algeria and Mali runs deep.”
Instead of settling in familiar Malian studios, the Diabatés chose to record their album in London, a neutral terrain that gave them the liberty to interpret a new, heady conversation that blends tradition and modernity. "It was more tranquil than Bamako, which made it easier to get closer to my father and see what he’s like out in the world and in a studio," explained Sidiki. "We lead hectic lives in Mali, what with the family and work and the tours that my father prepares, we rarely have time to sit down and do things together. When my dad suggested this project to me, I said yes at once. It’s a shame that he was never able to record with his own father."
A griot’s life is not an easy one in Mali, with the onus on family transmission from generation to generation. Often, busy fathers can’t find the time to pass on the torch to their sons, who are obliged to look for other mentors.
In the Diabaté family, griots go back 72 generations. Along with the oral tradition, Sidiki has studied at the National Institute of Arts, and learned to write music at the Balla Fasseké Kouyaté Conservatoire, where his instrument was … the drums.
Toumani also took classes outside the family courtyard (including with his spiritual father Ali Farka Touré, his elder by half a century). He would have liked to play more with his real father, Sidiki Diabaté (1922-1996), who was named king of kora in 1977 at Festpac in Lagos. "Unfortunately, he didn’t have much time to teach me music, but I learned through him by listening to cassettes of his music and my grandfather’s. I also followed my mother around, Nama Koïta, who was in the Malian national ballet," explained Toumani, after an intense rehearsal with his son and the Symmetric Orchestra, a transnational band that he set up to bridge Mandinka and western music styles.
"We’re celebrating the release of this album with two concerts at the Institut Français, we’re going to include beats and experiment with sounds that aren’t on the album!" enthused Sidiki. The Diabatés have returned to the Bamako scene they know so well. "Slowly, the music scene is getting back on its feet. It’s almost like before, except that Malians’ financial situation is very hard, so offering them some new music can only do them good," said Toumani hopefully.
Grandfather Sidiki was one of the spokesmen of the Kaïra movement, which started up 14 years before independence as a reaction to the threats to tradition brought about by colonisation and imported music. Since then, the Diabatés have laid their forefather’s fears to rest: "We make music from the past that meets music from the present to build the future," promised Toumani.