[22 May 2014]
An artist is a reflection of their time, their country, their city, and for better or worse, their family. Search most musicians biographies and you will find at least one influential relative that shaped their music—Bruno Mars’ mother, John Lennon’s aunt, Brian Wilson’s father. But for griots, the esteemed bearers of Mali’s venerable music traditions, this hereditary influence on music stretches back centuries as fathers pass on the tradition to sons who pass it on to grandsons. On Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté‘s new release Toumani & Sidiki, one family of griots treats listeners to an album that took 700 years to make and subtly make an important statement about the nature and resilience of culture.
Griots were the record keepers of the great Mandé kingdoms that dominated West Africa prior to colonization. Similar in function to medieval bards, griots served in the courts of nobles, composing songs that commemorated the great actions of the king and his ancestors. Griots were indispensable to Mandé society, as the history of the people was woven into the griots songs. With only a surname to work from, a seasoned griot could sing a person songs about the deeds of long deceased ancestors.
Toumani Diabaté is an inheritor of this tradition. Toumani’s father, whom Sidiki is named after, was the first griot to be record an album. For nearly three decades, Toumani has sought to bring the music of the griots to the world. A master of the kora—the 21-stringed spike harp that defines Malian music—Toumani has spent his life crossing musical and geographical borders to share with the world the 700-year-old musical tradition of the Mandé, winning fans from Björk to Barack Obama.
While Toumani is known world-wide as the ambassador of Mali’s most sacred musical tradition, his son Sidiki is known throughout West Africa as a prolific, cutting-edge hip-hop producer. Their first recording together sets the stage for a number of interesting relationships and juxtapositions: father/son, teacher/student, past/future, tradition/innovation.
Recorded with little rehearsal, the all-instrumental duet album has the feel of a conversational meditation, with the two griots engaging with each other through the language of their ancestors. The track “Tijaniya” is named after the large, centuries-old sufi order popular in west Africa. This mystical Islamic order teaches that music is not a dangerous diversion, as hard-line Islamists would contend, but rather is a means of spiritual exploration. The track finds the two Kora masters taking turns dancing over rolling arpeggios that quietly hum with life.
While the album is rooted in Mali’s past, there are plenty of references to the country’s present and future. The song “A.C.I. 2000 Diaby” captures the spirit of Malian capital city Bamako’s thriving Central Business District in a song dedicated to a revered religious figure who currently calls the city home. The track features some of the albums most virtuosic solo outbursts as the tempo of the underlying ostinato pushes the listener forward.
Toumani & Sidiki is neither a reinvention nor a encapsulation of the griot tradition, but rather a timely statement of the importance and endurance of tradition. A tradition that has been recently threatened. Released just two years after a coup sought to end what had been the longest running democracy in Africa, and Al-Qaeda backed militants seized portions of northern Mali before being turned back by French peace keepers. The album illustrates the deep roots of Mandé culture, and carries on traditions and practices which stand in stark contrast to the harsh fundamentalism some wish to impose on Mali. The ongoing struggle for the future character of Mali underlines another juxtaposition—one which appears counterintuitive, but defines the essential conflict in so many places where Islam has been incorporated into local tradition through centuries of trade and exchange—the split between traditionalists and fundamentalists. And it is against the backdrop of this conflict that this recording can serve to inspire.