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African Legends

Toumani Diabaté

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published November 21, 2006

Several gifted musicians are associated with the West African kora harp (Mory Kante and Foday Musa Suso among them), but Toumani Diabaté is arguably the reigning master.

Born in Bamako, Mali in 1965, Diabaté’s father, Sidiki Diabaté, beat him to it for the title “king of the kora,” but the elder musician was often away on tour so the young Toumani was basically self-taught. From the age of five, Toumani was learning his craft, and by 13 he was performing solo.

After touring Europe in 1984 as part of a large group of Malian musicians, Diabaté returned home, where in 1988 he released his first solo album, the strictly traditional Kaira. Diabaté had no intention of sitting still musically, however. Having absorbed rock, jazz, funk and world music, his next move was to team up with the progressive Spanish flamenco group, Ketama, on Songhai, a well-received album that also featured the double-bassist Danny Thompson.

For 1995’s Djelika, Diabaté returned to his Malian roots, working with Keletigui Diabaté on the xylophone-like balafon and Basekou Kouyate on the n’goni, a small African lute. And 1999’s New Ancient Strings paired Diabaté with another kora player, Ballake Sissoko, the two of them paying tribute to their fathers (Djelimady Sissoko was also a kora master), who’d recorded on an album titled Ancient Strings decades earlier.

Perhaps most prominent among Toumani Diabaté’s duets was Kulanjan, his 1999 collaboration with the American bluesman Taj Mahal. More recently, Diabaté joined up with another Malian giant, Ali Farka Touré, for In The Heart Of The Moon, one of the finest releases of 2005.

Recommended Recordings

Songhai (Hannibal)
New Ancient Strings (Hannibal)
In The Heart Of The Moon (World Circuit/Nonesuch)