Toumani Diabaté comes from a long family tradition of kora players including his father Sidiki Diabaté, who recorded the first ever kora album in 1970. His family’s oral tradition tells of 71 generations of musicians preceding him. In 1988 Diabaté released his first album in the West, a solo album entitled Kaira, also the first solo kora recording in history. Over twenty years later, after many collaborations with musicians from many different cultures, Toumani Diabaté returned to the solo kora to record The Mandé Variations.
Whichever way you look at it, Toumani Diabaté’s music is unique. From the point of view of the kora his first recording, Kaira, is a revelation. Like the acoustic guitar some years before, with Toumani’s epic renditions of five traditional kora works, the kora shed its role as an accompaniment to the voice, and become a solo voice in its own right. The technical and compositional mastery which Toumani Diabaté drew on to achieve this feat is, I would argue, unequaled in the repertoire of the kora even to this day.
When I began to delve into this work as a transcriber my appreciation grew ten-fold. There was an unbelievable wealth of melodic and thematic development, especially given the constraints of a fixed bass and harmonic movement over works which spanned the length of six to nine minutes. Very rarely was even one musical phrase repeated more than once – certainly never more than twice. The work which springs to mind as an historical precedent to this is J.S.Bach’s famous Ciaconna, over fifteen minutes of continuous melodic invention over a fixed harmonic cycle.
The first thing I noticed as I started finding ways to play the pieces from Kaira on guitar, was how the simple rhythmic counterpoint made the effect of multiple voices and rhythmic freedom between voices. The nature of the interlocking rhythms between a low and a high part gave the listener the impression of total freedom between voices. This effect was heightened in works like Kaira and Jarabi by the swinging rhythm and the placing of important parts on the offbeat of the swinging duplets. So while all the parts fitted together in a seamless rhythmic whole, the overall effect was one of the independence of individual lines. This, in the language of classical composition, is true counterpoint, and it is this perfection of counterpoint which had drawn me, and many others, to Toumani Diabaté’s work in the first place.
This counterpoint is also the effect which has made him seem like a magician in musical circles. For me, having played these same pieces and studied them closely, I would say now that it is not the execution which is the stuff of magic. For me it is the magic of the composition of these lines, the fact of the musical imagination which allowed for such a wide range of thematic ideas to arise out of such a simple structure as the Manding kora player’s kumbengo.
The kumbengo is a cyclical phrase which would provide the rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment to the melodic phrases of the singer or second kora player. My version of Toumani Diabaté’s rendition of Jarabi has eight different variations of the basic kumbengo in a piece which lasts less than six minutes. Konkoba has six in my version. The original kora performance of both has a few more.
These cycles are juxtaposed with what is usually called “improvisation.” Even Toumani Diabaté calls his melodic work “improvisation” over a fixed bass and harmony. But if we look at two pieces, Jarabi and Cantelowes, we get a different view of the matter. These two performances are separated by over twenty years. The first appears on Kaira while the second is recorded on The Mandé Variations. What is interesting is that the thematic material remains fairly similar in both of these versions of the classic Mandé piece Jarabi. There are a few minor differences, a few less kumbengos in the later version, and a simplification in Cantelowes of some of the cadential lines from the earlier Jarabi. But it remains clear that what we have here is two performances of the same musical work.
Of course these performances are far freer and different in content than any two performances of a classical work like the Ciaconna, pieces which will always be bound to a singular musical score with a fixed progression of musical ideas. But the fact remains that, while Toumani Diabaté’s performance may call into question the fixed lines between improvisation and composition, his work does a lot to take us back to a time when “composer” and “performer” and “improvisor” were not such distinct terms.
While this rather academic distinction between an “improvisation” from a musician from an oral tradition on the one hand, and an “improvised performance” of a musical “composition” on the other, may seem, at first glance, a simple matter of musical classification, I would argue that there is some value in pursuing the topic a little further at least. Because when we start to see the musical utterances of the music of oral traditions as “compositions” we may start to understand a little more about the “compositions” and musicians of early European “art music.” And this, more than the currently fashionable forays into early music performance texts, may shed some light on those aspects of music which were lost when the boundaries were firmly drawn between the composer, the performer, the composition, the improvisation…and all the rest.
Because it is simply this presumption that a musical work from the European classical canon is “composition” while a musical work from an oral tradition from, for example, Africa, is “folk music” or “traditional music” that allows us to create the distinction between those problematic terms of CLASSICAL MUSIC and WORLD MUSIC.
So it is my feeling that the first seven scores of Toumani Diabaté’ solo works, arranged as they are for solo guitar, give us first and foremost a glimpse into the music of one of our time’s great composers, and certainly one of Africa’s greatest composers. And perhaps equally interesting is the fact that they give us a glimpse of the kind of musical activity that may have resulted in some of the great composers of Europe, the Bach’s and Scarlatti’s, who themselves were far closer to Toumani Diabaté’s musical world than we are today.
In any event, these scores allow for interpretation and, I hope, a way for the music to continue to live in the way that music has lived since music began: in the hands of the musicians that play it.