Kora master steps away from traditional moorings -- but not too far
Mamadou Diabate is one of Mali's foremost kora virtuosos. The kora, a 21-string harp whose long neck is attached to a volleyball-sized gourd shell, is one of the most familiar instruments in west African traditional music. Diabate's breathtaking skill is well documented in such albums as Tunga (2000), Heritage (2006), and Douga Mansa (2008), which won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album. With Courage, Diabate steps away from traditional tunes to release an album of original compositions.
Opening tune "Yaka Yaka" sets the tone -- one which will be adhered to throughout the proceedings. Not surprisingly, the kora takes center stage, with Diabate showcasing his remarkable dexterity in both the complex ryhthm and the lilting solo runs. "Welcome Home", the second track on the album, is a show stopper: Its midtempo swagger soon peels off into a series of eye-wateringly quick arpeggios, with notes bouncing off the strings in cascading ripples that go by nearly too fast for the listener to absorb.
In both of these songs, and most others on the record, the kora is accompanied by the balafon, a type of xylophone whose reedy, rhythmic counterpoint can either support the kora's improvisational solos with steady thrumming rhythms or provide a solo voice of its own. The interplay of the two instruments provides many of the highlights on the album. Low-key bass guitar seems to be the only other instrument that contributes to the proceedings with any regularity. There are no vocals.
There are highlights, however. "Humanity" boasts a subtle, snaky bassline and trance-inducing vibe that serves as a platform for yet more 21-string wizardry. "Kita Djely" features a jaunty tune and some of the most complex balafon-kora interplay on the record. "Diayeh Bana", the longest track on the album, clocks in at over six minutes and works from a rippling series of runs to a hypnotic mid-tempo shuffle, enjoying a visit from the balafon before ramping up the tempo.
It's all engaging enough, but for the casual listener it's an open question as to whether minimal variations in tempo and rhythm will be enough by themselves to maintain interest. Diabate is an unquestioned master of his instrument, and his dexterity is astonishing. However, halfway through the record a certain sameness is in evidence, and nothing in the set's last five or six songs does much to refute this. The balafon continues to crop up, to good effect, but there is no other variation in instrumentation or arrangement.
This is not to say that every record by an African musician must feature Baaba Maal-esque wailing, driving basslines, or layers of talking drums. Listeners anticipating such elements, however, should realize that there is none of that here. This is not exactly a quiet record -- there is plenty of energy, and most of the tunes are uptempo -- but it is an acoustic album, apart from the odd bass worked well down into the mix. Diabate may have moved away from traditional music per se, but the elements he works with lie very close to that source, and the furrow he plows is very similar indeed.