In Conversation: Toumani Diabaté - Malian Sounds

Posted By: The Wild Times

Toumani Diabaté is part of a proud griot dynasty that stretches back 73 generations. A hugely important family in the development of the traditional west African instrument, the kora, the Diabatés have done so much to bring their music customs to audiences around the globe. Toumani’s father was the first kora player ever to record an album and went on to place kora music on the global stage. Toumani then expanded the sound himself, adding fusions of rock, blues and electro since the late 80s before his son, Sidiki came along and added contemporary hip-hop excursions to the traditional west African culture. Last year, father and son collaborated on a highly acclaimed, ground breaking album and now the Malian musicians will be performing together at this year’s Field Day festival in London on June 6th.

What was it like for the ten months that music was banned in Mali? How did it affect a society for which music is so important? How did people handle the ban? Did people take up new and strange interests? Did people end up talking about music more during that time? How well has Mali recovered so far since the crisis?
These terrorists didn't know anything about our culture, about our country or about our religion. They think that they talk in the name of God, They said that they try to protect our religion. It’s not true. We love our religion, we love our traditions. Music has been at the centre of our life since many centuries ago. Our weddings, the baptisms of the new children; all the main ceremonies are based around music in our country. We are musicians because our parents were musicians too, our grandparents… it has been like this from 71 generations in my case in the Diabate’s family. Imagine how unbelievable it was for us when some foreign people came to our country to dictate what we must do, to say music is forbidden, no radio, no TV, no CD-player, no live music. This situation happened in the north of Mali, this situation didn’t arrive in the south, to the capital in Bamako but at the same time due to the war more of the clubs closed and it was very hard for the musicians, because it is their job, this is the way to earn money for many people, singers and musicians…Thank God now everything is ok, we don’t have this problem anymore. Forbidding music for us is like forbidding to live, to talk, to watch….

Throughout your career, have you noticed an increased appreciation of music from Mali and Africa as a whole, by people all over the world? Why do you think that is?
Of course if we compare the situation before the independence in the 60’s with the situation now after winning Grammy’s Awards, after icons like Ali Farka Toure, Youssou N’Dour, or the success of west African music around the world then it is obvious that the appreciation of the West African music is much better now than before. The reason is because western audiences understood how good our music is, the way we play, our tradition. It was something unknown maybe and they can discover the origin of the pop, blues , rock , jazz… They can appreciate also how important music is in our lives, not because fans or because of the money.    
How do you feel about people taking up the kora without observing and learning in a traditional way?
The kora is a very special instrument coming from a thousand years ago. It’s a very important legacy. I respect everybody but I feel its better to learn the background of this magical instrument first and then to decide after what to do it next. I teach new students around the world myself. I think it is very important to learn properly, especially at the beginning. Otherwise you can miss important details.

What challenges does mastering the kora involve that other instruments don’t?
First, I don't know another instrument that can play base lines, accompaniment and improvisation all together at the same time with just two fingers of each hand, but the most important challenge is explaining where this instrument comes from, his history, his legacy…
Why do you think that griots place such importance on not helping and guiding the next generation in a practical way?
Because the griots are the archive, the hard drive, the memory of our culture. They were very important in the past and they are very important now. Otherwise we can lose everything, even our music, our culture,
Your musical dynasty stretches 73 generations now. Do you ever worry that younger and future generations will loose interest in keeping the tradition going?
I’m the 72nd generation, Sidiki my son is the 73rd generation. He is 24 years old now and he represents the new generations perfectly. As you know he’s a hip-hop star in west Africa with a lot of fans. He has the kora at the front of all this projects and he has with him all the legacy that he learned with the family and the fans follow him. The new generation know very well that if they forget the tradition they loose their cultural identity.

How does it feel to have made and album with your son and now taking it on tour around the world?
I’m very proud of that because if he ‘s in this project with me is not because he’s my son, its because he’s a great musician. He’s the best person to do this album with me because it is a different way of playing the kora - respecting the tradition but adding new elements.
Do you think Sidiki’s hip-hop sentiments are perhaps grounded in the oral traditions of poetry amongst griots?
Of course, he’s not doing brit hip-hop or American hip-hop, he is doing his own music using new language and vocals plus electronic elements.
What do you think of the hip-hop culture that is really booming in Mali right now? What do you like about it?
From Sidiki’s music, I like very much their energy, their power, the communication with the audience and the respect for the tradition.

How would you describe the London crowds throughout your career?
All that I am internationally is because of the crowds in London. I started my international career here. I lived in Camden. I always feel very well respected, I feel like at home.
Will you get much chance to hang out at Field Day? Which other artists are you hoping you will get to see?
I really like the atmosphere at Field Day! It's my third time at the festival and I've always had very good experiences there. I don’t know what my schedule will be like on the day but I’m sure it will be an unforgettable experience. It will be first time for Sidiki.

Words: Tom Jones

Field Day Festival takes place this Saturday 6th (11.30am – 11pm) and Sunday 7th June (1pm – 10.30pm) at Victoria Park, Grove Road, London, E3. See here for tickets and full lineup.

Similar Features