Toumani and Sidiki

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate on stage at St Georges Hall Concert Room

News out of Mali has been so dreadful this past two years that there was something extra-celebratory about the concert this Tuesday evening in the elegant, gilded surroundings of St Georges Hall Concert Room in which the world’s greatest kora player Toumani Diabate performed duets with his son Sidiki, the latest in a family of griots whose lineage stretches back 71 generations, father to son.

Toumani (who speaks pretty fluent English picked up when he lived in London for a while in the 1980s) didn’t mention the crisis that struck Mali in 2012 and 2013 when jihadist forces gained control of two-thirds of a country rich in music and ancient learning, and distinguished by a culture rooted in a relaxed and tolerant Sufi Islamic tradition.  But he was in Liverpool to play music from Toumani and Sidiki, the new album which he regards as a contribution to the healing process in post-conflict Mali.  It’s a collection of very old, recently rediscovered kora pieces which Toumani chose to give new titles, honouring people and institutions that he believes played a crucial role in preserving Mali’s dignity.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

Sidiki came on stage first to play a solo piece, suggesting that already at 24 years of age, he has already absorbed much through his apprenticeship to his father. In addition to being the latest addition to the celebrated Diabate musical dynasty, back home in Mali, Sidiki is a star in his own right having  established a huge following as a hip-hop musician and record producer.  As a teenager he enrolled in the National Institute for the Arts in Bamako, taking up drums and learning digital recording techniques, and in 2013 – as his father proudly informed the Liverpool audience – he won the Malian Hip Hop Award, being voted Mali’s best beat-maker.

Like his father, Sidiki has been outspoken in defence of his country’s freedom. In 2012 he teamed up with rapper Iba One to record ‘On Veut La Paix’ (‘We Want Peace’), an all-star rap hymn to peace in Mali, released as the jihadist forces were outlawing music in the areas they controlled in the north of the country.

After performing the opening number, Sidiki assisted his father, leaning on a stick, to the seat beside him. For the rest of the concert father and son – who performed together in the UK for the first time at the Royal Festival Hall last year –  treated us to a dazzling display of virtuosity on the two koras. What we saw and heard comprises the essence of West African music and culture, as Andy Morgan observed in a great piece on their partnership in last Friday’s Guardian:

Take the bone-dry shell of a large gourd, a straight length of rosewood and a piece of cow or antelope hide, combine them with 200 years of craftsmanship and 21 strings, and you have the kora: sub‑SaharanAfrica’s most sophisticated native instrument. Then take a man or woman born to the task of reciting epic poetry from memory and picking the ripest words out of the air to praise or placate – now you have a griot: the hereditary bard of West Africa. Put kora and griot together, and you have the foundations of West African music and culture.

This is the classical music of West Africa, exquisite and delicate, and each player dazzled with cascading lines of melody. The communication between the two performers was so intense that at times it was difficult to tell that two instruments were being played. The interplay between father and son was especially marked in rhythmic passages where each vied with the other to drive the music forward.  The tunes they played were from their new CD Toumani and Sidiki, including this, the opening track on the album, ‘Hamadoun Toure’:

The St Georges audience responded warmly to each number with lengthy applause. Towards the end Toumani spoke for several minutes about being the descendent of 70 generations – ‘stretching back father to son, father to son’, while Sidiki, speaking in French and with a smile on his face, spoke of the complications of his apprenticeship with Toumani – ‘his father, and at the same time his master’.

Toumani made some sharp comments about Europe’s relationship with Africa by way of introduction to their final number – the delicate and lovely tune from the new album which he named ‘Lampedusa’, a moving tribute to the 360 migrants from Libya who drowned when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013 while the album was being recorded in London.  Whilst the European media promote a distorted picture of life in Africa as consisting of no more that starvation and war, equally Africans gain an unrealistic impression of Europe as a place where there is no poverty, no one goes hungry, no-one is homeless, and there are jobs for all.

At the conclusion of ‘Lampedusa’ Toumani and Sidiki left the stage to rapturous applause.

Here are two short videos from World Circuit Records in which Toumani and Sidiki talk about  recording the new album:


2 thoughts on “Toumani and Sidiki Diabate: latest of 71 generations of Malian griots in Liverpool

  1. Gerry,
    Many thanks for this post. I’d heard of Toumani Diabate but had never heard him play until now. I’ll certainly make a point of hearing a lot more of him (and Sidiki). How amazing to have 71 generations of griots! And to think that we in the West have often been so arrogant as to think we introduced “culture” to a benighted Africa. The concert must have been wonderful.

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