Solo Acoustic Guitarist | African and Contemporary | Composer and Performer

Toumani Diabaté Re-Imagines Bach

I am booked to play a concert of Bach and Toumani Diabaté in a few weeks time, for the Karoo Klassique classical music festival in the Karoo  town of Oudsthoorn. Yesterday I played the Ciaccona  for the first time in years. I have a long history with this piece, a history which can be read about in the liner notes of Prayers and Dances II.

Needless to say I cannot remember much of how to play it. I have been far too immersed in the creation of an exciting new repertoire  based on the music of West African kora, as well as in the translation of the Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti’s varied music onto six-string guitar, to have delved into the holy grail of Western classical music for the last year or more. But my fingers do remember small fragments and it won’t take long to remember the whole 15 minutes of Bach’s masterpiece.

So, what have I learnt about Bach by playing Toumani?

The first great difference between Bach’s music as it is played today (let’s call this Contemporary Bach) and Toumani Diabate’s playing, perhaps from his first album called Kaira, is the manner in which the music is created: Contemporary Bach is now a written tradition (barring the attempts of the early music fraternity to recreate the improvisational nature of Bach’s work) while the work of Toumani issues forth from an entirely oral tradition.

Imagine the difference between two people, one who has heard the word “cat” and learnt to say it himself, and one who has been told that the sounds “c”, “a” and “t” can be put together to make the sound that refers to hairy creatures with retractable claws. Imagine the difference between the sound of the word “cat” spoken by these two people. Imagine also that an awareness of the insufficiency of the second person’s “cat” is recognised and a tradition of education begun that helps people to interpret the sounds “c-a-t” and make them flow into the music of “cat” (enter the realm of musical conservatories).

Bach’s music grew out of (primarily) an oral tradition that used the written symbols of musical notation (secondarily)  as a means of recording, sharing and teaching music. He was able to improvise, to speak his particular language of music fluently, without reference to the written page. He was also steeped in the inflections of his musical culture, most of which he and his contemporaries took completely for granted. There are a few texts dating from this period which mention some basic performance practices of the time, but it is clear that much of how people played is lost in time, perhaps because the level of self reflection was not as acute as today (when multitudes of musical cultures and styles co-exist) and also because writers on music would not have stated the obvious (which today would no longer be obvious).

Would we write a text on spoken English and explicitly state that we should raise the pitch of our voice at the end of a sentence which is a question? Probably not. We would assume that most know this.

So I would like to suggest that, while the specific and idiosyncratic cadences of Bach’s music may be lost in time, we may be able to recapture the spirit of music as it exists in a (similar? analogous?) oral culture, and thus get closer to the spirit of Bach’s music-making even if we end up using a very different musical accent to realise his specific works.

Enter Toumani Diabaté.

Here we have actual recordings of musicians playing complex and polyphonic music as a result of a long history of music handed down outside of the framework of a written culture.

I am interested in how this process of learning exclusively through hearing and doing will effect the way in which a musician plays music. My theory is that by hearing this way of playing, we would find ourselves far closer to the spirit of the playing of a musician like J.S.Bach, closer in fact than any score or text from the time could bring us.

In other words, the very ease and fluidity and variations of Toumani Diabaté’s kora playing would in many ways echo the ease and fluidity of a musician like Bach who shared more with Toumani’s world than he would with a classical musician of today.

So I am returning to Bach with a new vision of his music. For years the challenge was to turn discrete dots on a page into a flow of musical sounds (after all Bach means “river’). Now, through playing and scoring the music of Toumani Diabaté, I am reminded that while some notes are barely heard and others are important, they are written in the score with the same intensity (and I don’ just mean the difference melody and accompaniment, I mean the difference from one note to the next, like speech). I

In a musical score there are no shades of light and dark, just one colour of black set against the white of the page. But in music each note is a different intensity, and it is the interpretation of a musician which must transform these totally uniform characters into a musical organism with multitudes of subtle differences. Classical musicians call this phrasing, inflection, articulation.

With Toumani I can return to the recording to remember this. With Bach I have nothing but the black on white score (even though his own hand-written scores provide a much more fluid picture than the quantised modern variants).

But today, as I begin to relearn Bach’s masterpiece, a flowing fifteen minutes over a single bass line, repeated over and over just like the bassline to Toumani’s version of Jarabi or Kaira or Konkoba, I have Toumani’s flowing lines to guide me. Yes the result may be a music very different from Bach’s own musical accent, but I hope that the memory of his music, stored in my fingers, will allow me to forget about Bach’s “c-a-t” and simply utter the magical sound of “cat,” to hear the Ciaccona as a product of musical speech, a speech common to all musical cultures, in all lands, throughout the history of homo sapiens, the singing ape.




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