In the hands of Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, the kora (the 21-strings harp widely used in West African music) becomes a way of travelling both in space and time, and for the first time these two Malian musicians, who are father and son, decided, so to say, to travel together.
The result is a new 10-track album, which is simply titled after their names. Despite the fact that both musicians play the same instrument, Toumani and Sidiki has a great musical variety and shows how far the kora potentialities can be pushed.
This is not surprising since it is an instrument with an history several centuries old: it was a feature of the griots, the record keepers of the great Mandé kingdoms that dominated West Africa before the colonialists’ arrival. The griots’ task – similar, in some way, to that of European Medieval storytellers or that of the singer-poets in ancient Greece – was to compose praise songs commemorating the acts of the noble leaders of the people and the history of a whole society.
Sidiki and Toumani’s ancestors have held that job for as long as 70 generations, and Toumani’s father (who was also named Sidiki) has been the first griot ever to record an album.
His son has done far better: in his attempt to spread the kora sound throughout the world he has already authored or contributed, since 1987, to at least eighteen albums, becoming also involved in important cross-cultural attempts: his duets with famous African and international artists, such as Ali Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, Björk, Dee Dee Bridgewater and former Blur singer Damon Albarn, are renowned. Born to such a versatile musician, Sidiki could not be expected to be less talented and indeed he proved to be on top of the situation. Most Malian youth know him as part of the hip-hop duo Iba One and an award-winning beatmaker, influenced by international stars such as Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. However he is also a singer, pianist and – obviously – kora player: he learned to play the instrument when he was just 10 and – when he grew up – his aim has been to make it a part of the musical scene of the digital age. “I hope to bring kora in other universes – he recently told the press – particularly towards hip hop, preserving at the same time its original characteristics. I could even duet with Beyoncé or One Direction”.
In Sidiki and Toumani, the younger Diabaté does not go as far as this. Nevertheless, his style – rhythmic and prone to improvisation – can be easily distinguished from his father’s lyric and somehow melancholic one. With their different yet kindred background, the two musicians proceed through the 10 tracks of the album, in which there is much of the ancient griots’ spirit. “We can’t help talking politics, because we love our country”, Sidiki says, for instance, referring to Mali, for which he also wrote a song with many fellow musicians when the political and military crisis in the northern part of the country was at its peak. “We only have songs – he adds – but we use them as weapons: the youth likes our music and we want nothing but peace and unity in our country”. In fact, many of the tracks in Toumani and Sidiki are dedicated to figures who, in the musicians’ view, have contributed to ending the war. Among those is former PM Cheikh Modibo Diarra, a choice for which Toumani has given a precise reason: “He has done much for us Malians – he told the press – he presided over a government without being paid, for the first time in the history of the country”. Also Hamadoun Toure is titled after a less known figure who had a positive role during the crisis, helping refugees in camps. The Diabatés commitment for peace and against radical, erroneous interpretations of Islam, is also shown by Tijaniya, named after the moderate Sufi brotherhood of West Africa.
Many of these songs, from a musical point of view, are traditional tunes updated through improvisation, but the album also has room for an original composition, Lampedusa, a tribute to the migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea, written after the terrible October 2013 shipwreck off the coast of the Italian island, which killed hundreds. Despite not a single word is uttered during the song, its music manages to convey the sadness felt by the two musicians for the death of so many people. Similarly, also in the other tracks, the listener does not feels that the human voice is lacking, since it has been replaced by one equally expressive: the age-old voice of the kora. (D.M.)