Toumani Diabaté: "From a cultural perspective, Africa is number 1"

June 2008 -

After years of fusion experiments, Toumani Diabaté is now touring Europe solo. He wants to show the world the cultural treasures of Africa. "You say that Africa is poor", he tells his public in the Amsterdam Tropentheater, "but from a cultural perspective we are number 1 in the world." He explains in more detail after his concert. "People in the West see only the bad side of Africa: civil wars, poverty. I want to show a different side. We have enormous cultural riches and our music is a universal language that enables us to communicate everything, including peace."


Toumani Diabaté

Diabaté was born in Bamako in 1965 into a world-famous Malinese family of kora players that goes back no less than 71 generations. His father, Sidiki Diabaté, taught him to play. "Look", he says, "the sound box is made from a calabash and it has 21 strings, which used to be made from animal skins but are now made of nylon. I play the bass line with my thumb. My other thumb does the accompaniment and I use my pointing fingers to improvise."

Diabaté, who was raised with the music of his forbearers as well as that of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, understood at an early age that kora playing had to be rejuvenated if the tradition was to remain alive. He now alternates solo performances with fusion projects. He has performed with the Spanish band Ketama, with blues musician Taj Mahal, with Björk and in the Symmetric Orchestra, for example. Diabaté is not afraid that the kora will lose to rising Western music. "The kora has survived many wars, colonialism and 700 years. It is a spiritual and deeply-rooted element in our culture, and the instrument will survive globalisation as well as Mozart and Beethoven did."

Diabaté is making no small contribution to that survival with his solo performances, his new solo album Mandé Variations, and his work at the Bamako Conservatory, which opened in 2004."It is going very well", he says. "Many students want to learn to play traditional instruments, and some are already touring Europe with a traditional programme." One of these is his son, Sidiki Diabaté, the kora's 16 year-old petit prince who will accept the baton from his father one day.