It’s pushing midnight at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City but the house is still close to packed, the crowd whistling its approval as the band comes on stage and the lights dim once again for a final encore. The brief silence is suddenly broken by a ripple of plucked notes, eventually spilling like a waterfall out into the room, the melody bobbing its way downstream on the back of a lilting, easy rhythm. Some liken it to the sound of a harp, but at the hands of Malian griot Toumani Diabaté, the 21-stringed kora is not just an instrument, it’s his “cultural ID card”—a living extension of his inner voice, transporting everyone who hears it to a universe, his universe.
Full of wisdom, grace and—perhaps most importantly—a self-effacing sense of humor, Diabaté is one of the greatest musicians to emerge from a West African nation that has produced a disproportionate number of them. Born in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in 1965, he took up the kora at age five, and although today he is considered its foremost player and innovator, for him it represents much more than his own livelihood. Diabaté is a revered member of Malian griot society, charged with the safekeeping and dissemination of Mandinka oral tradition, and the exquisite kora—crafted from a calabash gourd, cow skin, hardwood and fishing line— is the place where several hundred years of West African history now reside.
Diabaté considers his role to be a sacred one. As he will readily tell anyone, he is the standard-bearer of 71 generations of kora players in his family. The lineage, he explains, can be traced back to the height of the Mali Empire some 700 years ago, long before Western marauders carved it up and imposed borders to delineate what is now Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Mauritania, Gambia and several other countries. Toumani’s late father Sidiki Diabaté was a celebrated kora master, and now the son is readying his teenage son to take up the mantle.
There have been other great kora players—Mory Kanté and Foday Musa Suso come immediately to mind—but no one has done more to spread awareness of the instrument than Toumani Diabaté. Through many high-profile collaborations with artists as diverse as Taj Mahal, Björk, the flamenco group Ketama, vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Salif Keita, free-jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd and, most famously, the late Malian guitar legend Ali Farka Touré, Diabaté has taken the kora to places on both the musical and physical maps where it had never gone before.
This time he’s in New York not so much to tout his work with others, but to spread the word about his new album, The Mandé Variations (out now on World Circuit/Nonesuch). This is Diabaté’s first true solo recording—with no additional players or overdubs—since his 1988 debut Kaira. And while it’s evident that performing live is vi