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Toumani Diabaté - The Mandé Variations

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Artist: Toumani Diabaté

Album: The Mandé Variations

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Aug. 7, 2008

Kora master Toumani Diabaté has lived his life from his home of Bamako, Mali, though this physical grounding hasn’t diminished his collaborative jones: you may recall his playing on Björk’s Volta, his work alongside Damon Albarn, or records with Taj Mahal, Roswell Rudd – the list stretches longer than your leg. The Mandé Variations is his second solo album, and it’s gorgeous: florid at times, admittedly, but performed with grace and intelligence, and in some parts a bravura recital for the outer limits of the kora.

In Uncut recently, critic John Mulvey compared The Mandé Variations to John Fahey, and elsewhere Martin Longley has paralleled Diabaté’s playing with Indonesian gamelan and the timbral language of the Japanese koto. Mulvey and Longley make good points, and there’s certainly an approach to tradition(s) here that’s ultimately about transcendence, extending traditional form in a reverential-yet-experimental manner. Yet Diabaté’s playing is just as fascinating for its relationship with other traditional music from Mali: compared to, say, the recent samizdat discs on Jack Carneal’s Yaala Yaala, featuring players like Dauda Dembele or Yoro Sidibe, Diabaté weaves more flourish and trill into his playing.

The most arresting moments, to these ears, ride on rhythmic mnemonics that allow for microscopic shifts in melodic and physical pressure, as on “Si naani.” This is Diabaté at his best, and when he moves into more complex, intricate skeins of kora, as with the opening of “Ali Farka Toure,” he loses me slightly: it’s not unpleasant, but the measured yet compulsive energy in his more hypnotic performances wins out. And the reference to Morricone in “Cantelowes” feels surplus to requirements, to be honest.

My only major gripe is with the production: while the clarity of the recording helps if you’re after virtuosity alone, the politeness of the set-up, close-mic’ed with just a touch of room reverb, has Diabaté at times preserved in aspic. The Mandé Variations comes off, on occasion, as a museum exhibit - virtuosity as showcase. Ultimately, though, it’s a beautiful listen: poised, confident, lyrical.

By Jon Dale

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