The Mandé Variations (4.5*)

Sunday, 5 August 2012

 The Mande Variations.jpg

After singing his praises as a collaborator it was fairly obvious I needed to start picking up some of Toumani Diabaté’s solo work, something that’s easily done since there isn’t a whole lot of it out there. Take out the twenty-four-year-old Kaira and his 1999 collaboration with Ballake Sissoko on New Ancient Strings (and, yes, I know it’s a collaboration, but it’s an all-kora affair) and all you’re left with in the Toumani Diabaté solo department is this effort from 2008.

Given the items that go together to make the twenty-one stringed kora (take an African calabash gourd, cut it in half, fit with cow skin to make a resonator, add a wooden pole and use fishing line for the strings) you’d hardly expect the result to be one of the most seductive instruments on the planet, but from the opening notes of the ten and a half minute Si naani you’re off on an unamplified magic carpet ride of rippling melodies.

The first thing to note here is the clarity of the recording. World Circuit's production team of Nick Gold and Jerry Boys have captured the kora's sound precisely, and managed to do it in a single two hour session allegedly without overdubs. At times, though, you’d swear there was someone else in there.

The key element here is the Variations in the title. Much of the material is, notionally, traditional, though Diabaté's travels have brought in a wealth of outside influences to the mix, and the original material (Elyne Road, close to nine minutes of sonic exploration inspired, allegedly, by hearing UB 40 and named after a London street, as is the seven minute Cantelowes, though the starting point there comes from The Good The Bad & The Ugly.

Apart from evocations of London streets there are tributes to the late great guitarist 

Ali Farka Toure and Baaba Maal's late kora player Kaounding Cissoko and one dedicated to Diabaté's spiritual guide (Ismael Drame). Djourou Kara Nany apparently reflects Diabaté's griot heritage, and the completely improvised El Nabiyouna might have been made up on the spot (or based around familiar progressions, it’s hard for the novice listener to tell) but is comfortably of a piece with the rest of the album.

Indeed, one gets the impression they could have sat Toumani down and just left the tape rolling. A two-hour session, with the commercial release running to fifty-seven and a half minutes, it’d be interesting to hear the outtakes and/or alternate versions.

So, eight tracks, no amplification or technological tampering but crystal clear reproduction of an undoubted virtuoso going around his business. The Mandé Variations, for mine, forms a perfect foil for the collaborations. A master of his craft presented without additives, though the instrument itself adds all the filigree that’s needed.

Repeated listens have that 4.5* ranking getting very close to the point where it’ll need to be rounded up... 

© Ian Hughes 2012