Toumani Diabate – My mission is to play

toumaniHe plays in the Hogon club, Bamako, at Carnegie Hall, New York, and the Barbican, London. He has played with Damon Albarn, Taj Mahal and Peter Gabriel, with Bassekou Kouyaté, Ballaké Sissoko, Baaba Maal, and a thousand other African greats, most of whom remain unknown to the world at large. For Toumani Diabaté, Mali’s great kora maestro, the most important thing is to keep playing.

“My mission is to play” he says. And so far he’s doing pretty well. The 42-year old Diabaté started learning the kora, West Africa’s 21-stringed harp-like instrument, when he was five. Since then he has performed at over 2000 concerts and more than 170 festivals.

Diabaté is descended from 70 generations of griots, a West African term meaning praise-singer, poet, or bard. His heritage is rich with musical talent and an innate understanding of the social obligations of the role, whose origins can be found in the 13th century courts of the Malinke Empire. His father Sidiki Diabaté was known as the ‘King of the kora’; internationally famous before the commercial brand ‘world music’ existed.

‘The griot is the memory of West Africa’ says Diabaté. ‘We are the archive, the bibliothèque of West Africa. In the 13th century during the Malinke empire, when the kings were living in Mali, there was no-one to write about what was happening; there were no historians. Music is one of the best ways to communicate’. On the broader, quasi-diplomatic functions of his caste he adds,

‘The griot helps to organise the ceremony of birth and weddings. The griot is a peacemaker between men and women, between nations’.

Hearing him play at Womad this year was a hypnotic experience. The dulcet, melodious trickles of sound he creates via his fingertips are simply mesmerizing. These multi-layered, almost transcendental compositions won him a Grammy in 2006, in his collaboration with the late Ali Farka Touré, producing the widely-acclaimed album, In the Heart of the Moon. It becomes clear that it is the sheer beauty of his music that dignifies such ceremonies with a grace borne of religious origins.

‘I am spiritual’ says Diabaté, ‘Mali is 95 per cent Muslim. I was born into that. My music was never written. The music I have is divine inspiration’.

Clearly Toumani Diabaté keeps himself busy. His diverse collaborations and musical journeying bear witness to a creative endeavour unparalleled among contemporary African artists. From unique albums with Spanish flamenco band Ketama and bluesman Taj Mahal, to the grand collaborations of Albarn-inspired Africa Express and Mali Music, Diabaté is always open to new ideas. In October 2008 he played with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) at the Barbican.

‘It was an honour. I enjoyed it because it is a very prestigious orchestra’ he says in his casual way. Diabaté’s English accent and language reflect the French and American influences on his life and career.

‘Yeah, they (LSO) are great musicians, the venue was great. It was a very good opportunity. Today when you take African music, some people only think about percussion but in Africa we have more than that. The LSO’s music is not exclusively theirs. The LSO and I play the same classical music, close to the origin’.

When it comes to the business of next year’s work, he becomes secretive.

‘Insha’Allah (God willing) there will be a tour next year’, he says. ‘I will be continuing with The Mandé Variations project and working on some other different projects as well. I hope people will like what we produce’.

People have been dazzled by the virtuosity of The Mandé Variations, nominated for Best Album of 2008 by fRoots magazine. All-acoustic, it is Toumani’s first album of solo kora since his groundbreaking debut, ‘Kaira’, released almost twenty years ago. This year’s album has won praise in particular for its evocation of more traditional themes after the bolder, more experimental Boulevard de l’Indépendence, which he produced together with his Symmetric Orchestra in 2006.

When asked about other contemporary African musicians, Diabaté points out that ‘Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world financially, but today it is one of the number one countries culturally – Bassekou Kouyaté, Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangaré, Ali Farka Touré – all great artists in different ways, and all from Mali’. To emphasize the depth and diversity of his homeland’s wealth of performing artists, he adds, ‘You only know about 5 per cent of Mali’s music scene’.

And despite his elevated position among this pool of extraordinary talents, and the hyperbole that is often employed to describe his work, Diabaté maintains a mild, relaxed manner. There’s always a hint of humour in his eyes. He seems happy. The more excitable youth touring in the late 1980s has given way to a mellow, modest man. Perhaps his spirituality and a consciousness of his ancestry have instilled in Diabaté a genuine humility as well as a sense of responsibility.

‘I would like to do something for my people’ he states. One can be sure that most Malians who have had the privilege of hearing him play, not to mention the Friday night regulars at the Hogon club, would argue he’s already doing exactly that.

Mondomix

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Herat

Once again I was woken to the rising cries of the muezzin. Below, in the square connected to the Darb Khosh, carpet dealers are rolling out their crimson wares. It was an everyday scene in an altogether remarkable setting. 14-year-old Mohammed, the sullen relation of lazy-eyed Jalid, the Hotel Jaam’s manager, entered my room with yet another pot of green tea. The curtains of the open window were flailing again, and the wind smelled of rotten mangoes and car fumes.

Like the searing winds that swirl around it for 120 days a year, Herat is a city whose history rarely sits still. The wide plains that characterise this region of Afghanistan have made it difficult to defend. Its strategic importance as a trading route between Pakistan and Iran have made Herat the trophy city of successive vanquishers. Persian, Russian, British and Afghan troops all fought to acquire this prized domain within their spheres of influence. It was the birthplace of the Timurid renaissance.

Gawar Shad

More than a pawn of empires, Herat has also played host to some of Asia’s greatest personalities; Jenghiz Khan, Tamerlane, Queen Gawhar Shad, Shah Rukh and Babur all made their mark. It was famously at the end of Robert Bryon’s ‘Road to Oxiana’, the confirmed Afghanophile gladly wrote: ‘Here at last is Asia without an inferiority complex.’ Were her glories still intact, or had the scars of war consigned Herat to the scrapheap of historical anonymity?

The Hotel Jaam was full of Pakistani salesmen or groups of Afghan traders passing through. All would leave their bedroom doors wide open. We would gather in the lobby for dinner, a horde of ‘shalwar kamiz’ (the flowing robe-like clothing) and beards, glued to an old TV that seemed to show solely Bollywood music videos, 2nd rate action movies or the occasional anti-Taliban video sequence. Contrary to ‘hippie-trail’ perception, few Afghans smoke. It is, after all, a luxury not many can afford.

My days were spent soaking up the loaded feel of the streets. I would walk up the Jada-i Qumadari, to the old carpet and curio shops, full of dubious trinkets, muskets and knives amassed from fields and forts, and coins scavenged from the Musalla complex. While Shah Rukh (think chess) was responsible for the original complexion of the city, his remarkable wife, Gawhar Shad, started building this complex of mosque and madrassa (school for the teaching of Islam, and Islamic law) in 1417. What used to be 30 of the world’s tallest, most ornately-tiled minarets are now 5 wind-worn, leaning towers, and the ‘complex’ is little more than a rubbled wasteland with a main road running through its centreBuddha Bamiyan. Byron believed it represented ‘the most glorious production of Mohammedan architecture in the fifteenth century’. It is yet another Afghan treasure, like the Buddha’s of Bamiyan, violated by war.

 

There is something deeply historical about the atmosphere of Herat. Afghans themselves seem to represent all those years of consequence in their appearance. The face of an Afghan man mirrors the fate of his country. Furrowed brows and weathered skin reflect a life surrounded by conflict and climatic extremes. Great wreaths of facial hair and a handsome nose uphold a weighty dignity. And then the smile. It demonstrates the warmth of character so unique to these people. To the westerner who is so fortunate to see such radiance in a land of supposed gloom, it is an inspiration. Herat’s streets are full of such faces, walking and hawking along pock-marked asphalt, dirt and debris, where crazed cyclists dodge past horse-carts decorated with red pom-poms and bells and stalls selling all sorts, sidle the thoroughfares.

“It was easier under the Taliban”, said Yusuf, former de-miner for OMAR (Organisation for Mine clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation), referring to their lack of restraint when it came to the job of accessing and exploding the ordinances. Esther, a Swiss doctor, showed me around the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) Orthopaedic Centre. When asked about the Afghan people her face unmasked a raw emotion. “I’ve been trying to come here for years”, she said, as we moved through rooms of mine-victims, some paralysed from the waist down, some tetraplegic, others limping around with the aid of crutches. Many victims, if capable of using their arms, are employed after treatment in the making of others’ prosthetic limbs. “Many of our patients have relations who were in the Taliban. They don’t resent them”, she said. “I find the culture fascinating”, she sparkled intensely, and informed me that a female colleague believed the burka to be a source of liberty, like an invisibility cloak. The awful problems were evident enough but it was her inspiration, and her source of inspiration – the Afghan people –that gave one hope.

I had seen enough evidence of wars; the bullet-peppered walls of the Citadel, the guns-for-cash placards, the preponderance of crutches and cripples were all too visible. I had spoken to and seen many Afghans caring for their past, now I wanted to find Afghans who sought a bright future.

Masjid Herat

On my final day, I visited the Masjid-i Jami. It is undoubtedly Afghanistan’s finest surviving example of Islamic architecture. As I stood awe-stuck in the huge white marble courtyard, figures began to emerge from the shade of the hooded portals. They were University students preparing for an English exam the following day. Naturally, they hounded me, but my exasperation soon turned to admiration. I was being corrected on the passive tense and was subject to further enquiries of conjugation. They knew of Chaucer, quoted Shakespeare and venerated the classical 18th century English writers. Their youthful ambition in this harmonious, virtuous setting made me forget about war and suffering for an instant and believe that, more than just a hopeful future, Heratis are the possessors of something unique.

For this article I was awarded the Irish SMEDIA Award and shortlisted at the UK Guardian Student Media Awards for the category of Travel Journalism.