Toumani Diabate, the great Malian kora player, rarely makes it to these shores, so his recent performance at Yoshis in Oakland was a stellar occasion.
Known for his virtuosity, Diabate is a living master of the kora, the 21-string West African harp made of wood,metal, and a large calabash gourd. The kora has a characteristic sound, one that is hard to categorize. As he illustrated during the portion of the show when he talked to the audience about his instrument, he plays it with his thumbs and index fingers, with the other fingers serving to regulate the pressure on the strings.
Born in Mali's capital of Bamako, Diabate, 45, comes from a lineage of famous griots, a hereditary musician and historian caste. Diabate has researched back 71 generations of father-to-son transmission. His father, Sidiki Diabate was a famed performer and a favorite of Mali's first president, Modibo Keita. Toumani began playing the kora at age five and made his first public appearance at the tender age of 13. At 19, he toured the continent as an accompanying Kandia Kouyate, the famous Malian griot singer. Improvising on his own, Toumani innovated a method of playing bass and rhythm while improvising on the instrument, While in Europe in 1986, the 21-year-old Diabate recorded his groundbreaking solo album "Kaira." Encountering the music of other cultures, such as Indian, while recording the CD during a seven-month London residence, Diabate coined his musical trademark -- "jugalbandi" (musical dialogue between two instruments). He founded the Symmetric Orchestra in 1990, a name is intended to symbolize a perfect symmetry between modernity and tradition and between contributing musicians from neighboring West African countries. He has gone on to record a number of duets with other musicians and has won a Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album with guitarist Ali Farka Toure. A few years ago, he came out with another wonderful solo album: "The Mande Variations."
Accompanying Diabate on this tour were the three members of his dynamic ensemble: Fadi Madi Kouyate, a native of Burkina Faso, on guitar; Mohamed Koita on bass; and Fode Kouyate on drums. All are clad in traditional garb and are seated (as is Diabate; they have adapted their instruments to reflect indigenous rhythms.
The evening began as every Diabate composition does -- with a lovely,enchanting, and shimmering solo by Toumani. Toumani, seated front and center, plays and then the band joined in. The 90-minute show is comprised of three tunes: Manchester, Ruby and Goy Kouria.
A the conclusion of the second tune, Diabate, speaking with a French accent, thanks us for coming. Proclaiming that "music doesn't have any borders," he introduces three musicians who then take the stage. One, a local student of African guitar, takes a seat stage left. Another, an Oakland resident, who is a master of the kamele n'goni, stands to his left, as does a trumpet player, who Diabate found playing with Taj Majal and invited to sit in. Invoking the spirit of the late Ali Farka Toure, Diabate unveiled his latest musical departure which he dedicated to the late Ali Farka Toure.
In performance, Tourmani appeared to be every bit as happy as the wonderful music he is producing. The trumpet player exits but is later called back for "one last one." A good portion of the show highlights Diabate's solo playing. As he tells the audience, he has traced his lineage back 71 generations and believes that the kora dates back 700 years. This evening's particularly virtuoso performance shows that Tourmani Diabate -- who has learned to combine bass, melody and improvisation in one instrument--has taken this remarkable instrument to a new level.