Toumani Diabate has seen his profile rise in 2006 thanks to his excellent duo album with the late Ali Farka Toure as well as his own fine album with his Symmetric Orchestra. Here making his Montreal Jazz debut, Diabate came on stage like a conquering hero even though he had a walking cane in his hand. As the band settled into its set, it took about 45 minutes of introductory solos that featured each band member taking turns. Diabate sat at his kora for this part, beaming like a proud father but not doing a whole lot of playing. This segment came to an end with his vocalist paying tribute to the bandleader. While this sort of played out as an intro to Malian music, it was more demonstrative than an ideal for great music.
Things improved as the band, led by Diabate, began to play in earnest. It was here that Diabate staked his claim as one of the greatest kora players alive today. His fingers were a blur at times as they danced around the instrument. After lessons given on the instrument, the bandleader paused twice to talk (in French) about his history as musician (the Diabate family has been musicians for countless generations) and the history of his instrument. While there were many in the audience familiar with his music, it was a nice inclusive gesture that gave real context about what made this great musician tick.
The set mostly stuck to material from 2006's Boulevard de l'independence, which featured the Symmetric Orchestra, making this material really come alive as the tunes were expanded upon. But perhaps as North American audiences see more of the kora player, they'll also get to see even more facets to this great artist who has also recently worked in a wide variety of contexts (Bjork, Roswell Rudd, Vieux Farka Toure, Taj Mahal).