music reviewBy Clyde Macfarlane
Mali's greatest living kora players come together in a father-son partnership.
A fantastic photograph in the sleeve of Toumani & Sidiki summarises everything you would expect from this hotly anticipated father/son kora album. Toumani Diabaté, widely considered the greatest living player of West Africa's trademark harp, stands aloof to the left of a crowded family portrait. The key word here is 'living'; whilst the delicate rise and fall of kora music has a justified global following thanks to Toumani's output, there were countless great kora players before him. One of them, Sidiki Diabaté Senior, sits at the centre of the portrait with his kora's big calabash base resting in his lap. Toumani's father orchestrated the first ever kora recoding in 1970, a showcase of Mali's most respected musicians entitled Ancient Strings.
Toumani's eldest son, Sidiki Diabaté Junior, looks about five when the photograph was taken. He sits to the left of his grandfather and namesake, a miniature kora slotted into his lovably childish, bare-feet-to-the-camera pose. It's a display of modesty that such a photograph features here, highlighting the eternal gratitude every kora player must have to be born at the end of such a lineage. The gratitude continues, with every track bar-one on Toumani & Sidiki being credited to its traditional compositions. Some extend into Gambian and Senegalese oral history, with each story clearly outlined by Andy Morgan's excellent notes- a wedding song on 'Toguna Industries', or the musical telling of the legend of Miniyamba on the heart-wrenchingly tender 'Rachid Ouiguini'; the power of the Ghanaian Wagadu Empire (830 AD to 1230 AD) depended on the annual sacrifice of a young girl to a giant python, it says, and when the practice ended, so the Empire fell.
Then we have the women in the photograph, who take on a solid, no-nonsense style authority. Whilst kora playing and its encompassing griot lineage are usually considered male roles, female griots are becoming increasingly common. Probably the most touching song played by Toumani and Sidiki Junior here is 'Claudia & Salma', a retelling of the legendary beauty of female griot Tahara N'Diaye. A favourite of Toumani's father, Sidiki Junior imitates a female voice with a high pitched kora tuning. It's reflective of the whole project; for a solely instrumental album, Toumani & Sidiki speaks with an incredible personality. A bold statement perhaps, but this could be Toumani's best collaboration since his work with the legendary desert blues guitarist Ali Farka Touré.
Toumani & Sidiki is released by World Circuit.
Clyde Macfarlane is a travel writer and music critic. He won a Guardian Student Media Award in 2009, while studying social antropology from Manchester University, and he has since had several articles published for the paper. He also writes for Songlines Magazine, specialising in African and Caribbean music genres. Follow Clyde on twitter @ClydeMacfarlane.