Born on August 10, 1965 in Bamako, Mali; married with children. Memberships: Leader and member of Symmetric Orchestra, 2005--. Addresses: Record company--World Circuit Records, 138 Kingsland Rd., London E2 8DY, Great Britain, website--

Toumani Diabate, one of the greatest living musicians from the West African nation of Mali, plays the kora, a harplike instrument made from cowhide stretched over an open gourd, with 21 wire strings. Diabate's music is deeply rooted in tradition; he is a member of a family of royal musicians that is said to go back 71 generations and is traceable to the thirteenth century. Yet in tradition Diabate has found freedom. He has collaborated with musicians from far beyond Mali, including flamenco guitarists, rock stars, and, in the case of American folk bluesman Taj Mahal, a kindred spirit with whom he has investigated the roots of the blues.

Diabate (dja-BAH-tay) was born in the Malian capital of Bamako on August 10, 1965. His father, Sidiki Diabate, was a famed kora player who made the first LP recording featuring the instrument, Ancient Strings, in 1970. Members of the family musical tradition, known as griots (GREE-ohs), were expected to carry their art forward by identifying one of their children as particularly gifted in music, and Toumani was the one chosen. His mother was a singer in a traditional music group.

Yet Diabate's education was not a matter of family apprenticeship. He learned to play the kora himself rather than being taught by his father, and his style was original. "My father did not play the kora like my grandfather, and my grandfather did not play like his father," Diabate pointed out to Adrian Basso of the Melbourne, Australia, Herald Sun. "Times are changing--the world today is different." Culturally, though, Diabate looked back to a glorious past. A member of the Mande ethnic group, he dreamed of reuniting musicians from the various countries into which the large Mande empire had been split under colonial rule. "Mali was the center of the old empire, and so I don't want people to say, 'This is music from Senegal or Mauritania'--it's all from the same country and the same culture, before the French and the British carved it up," he told Robin Denselow of London's Guardian newspaper.

When he was 13, Diabate made his first public appearance with a group called the Koulikoro Ensemble at a national festival, the Mali Biennale. The group took home a prize for best ensemble, and Diabate was invited to join Mali's National Ensemble. By the time he was 18 he had become a professional musician, going out on the road to accompany female Malian vocalist Kandia Kouyate in 1983. That tour took Diabate to neighboring Gabon and to France, giving him a taste of musical traditions outside the centuries-old forms he had absorbed.

The kora is used in various ways in the music of Mali: in ensembles, as vocal accompaniment for other singers, and in narrative or religious songs in which the musician both sings and plays. For his first album, however, Diabate chose perhaps the most difficult type of kora music, the solo performance. His album Kaira revealed a new virtuoso to the world. The open, seemingly transparent harmonies of the gentle kora concealed a host of subtle, skillful details. Washington Post reviewer Mike Joyce, reviewing a Diabate performance in 1991, pointed to the "highly arpeggiated and richly textured" quality of Diabate's music, with "tempo shifts, chromatic skips, bluesy reiterations, call-and-response patterns, and rousing codas [concluding flourishes]." Kaira remained a strong seller for many years, both in Mali and abroad, where it appeared on Britain's Hannibal label. The album's title had political significance, for it referred to a traditional music movement, founded by Diabate's father, that had been banned by the French because of its potential for inspiring resistance to colonial rule.

Britain in particular proved receptive to Diabate's music when he gave a 50-concert tour there in 1988. Diabate in turn was interested in the new music he heard in Europe. He had an uncanny ability to plan out ways of collaborating with non-Malian musicians after very little rehearsal, and in 1989 he joined with the Spanish flamenco band Ketama and the British jazz bassist Danny Thompson for the album Songhai (1989), a multicultural experiment that became an international and critical success.

Songhai did well enough that the same players followed it up with Songhai 2 a few years later, releasing it in Europe on Hannibal in 1995. Diabate continued to perform and record in traditional settings, releasing the solo kora album Djelika in 1996, and joining with Malian musician Ballake Sissoko for New Ancient Strings (1999), an album on which he revisited some of the music his father had recorded nearly 30 years before. It was his next cross-cultural disc, however, that gained him attention in the United States, where he had previously been known only to African music enthusiasts.

No one can say for certain where the African antecedents of American blues music may lie, for an essential trait of African-American music is that it distills the experience of diverse African peoples united under a common yoke. Nevertheless, historians and some performers have long noticed affinities between Malian music and the blues. The vocal line in both forms tends to start at the top of the singer's range and descend over the course of a line of text, for example, and a complex, often rhythmically independent relationship between voice and accompaniment is another common trait. When American folk blues musician Taj Mahal visited Mali and decided to investigate the connections by collaborating with a Malian performer, it was Diabate that he chose.

Kulanjan, a joint release by Mahal and Diabate, with contributions from several other Malian musicians, was released in 1999. The album contained blues standards like "Queen Bee" as well as African pieces, and it led to appearances for Diabate, both with Taj Mahal and alone, in large U.S. cities and also in Australia, where he toured in 2002. "It was very easy playing with Taj," Diabate told Seth Mortensen of the Sydney, Australia, Daily Telegraph. "I'm sure that 90 percent of the blues comes from Mali, so playing with Taj Mahal means the blues is coming back home." Mahal, for his part, told Jane Cornwell of London's Independent that hearing the kora "was like an elixir from somewhere deep in my psyche."

Diabate continued to seek out new co-creators, recording the album MALIcool with American jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd for release on the Soundscape label in 2003. By that time Diabate was a well-established figure in Mali. Married and with children, he taught kora at the Mali Conservatory of Music. He estimated that he has given over 2,000 kora concerts since the mid-1980s.

On the docket for Diabate in 2005 was a new kind of collaboration--not with an international musician but with Mali's other modern-day legend, guitarist Ali Farka Toure. The two represented different traditions within Mali; Diabate came from the griot tradition in the south, whereas Toure was from Niafunke in the northern part of the country. But Toure had also experimented with the relationship between Malian music and the blues, and the two had long admired each other. When world music producer Nick Gold brought them together at the Hotel Mande in Bamako, the album In the Heart of the Moon was finished in three days. The pair toured Britain that year, and the album inspired speculation that Malian music might be ready for an international breakthrough on the order of that achieved by Cuban traditional music after the release of the Buena Vista Social Club film and album. The charismatic Diabate was ready to ride the trend, with new music from an ensemble he dubbed the Symmetric Orchestra slated for release in 2006.

by James M. Manheim

Toumani Diabate's Career

Self-taught player of the kora, a 21-stringed West African instrument; toured with vocalist Kandia Kouyate, 1983; recorded debut album, Kaira, and toured U.K., 1988; with flamenco band Ketama and bassist Danny Thompson, recorded Songhai, 1989; recorded solo kora album Djelike, 1996; with Taj Mahal, recorded Kulanjan and toured U.S., 1999; toured Australia, 2002; with Ali Farka Toure, recorded In the Heart of the Moon, 2005; taught kora at Mali Conservatory of Music.

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