Sublimely beautiful idylls and dreamlike weavings of intercontinental musical traditions form Kôrôlén, a six-piece suite of compositions performed by kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté and the London Symphony Orchestra. Delicate arrangements by Nico Muhly and Ian Gardiner for the Orchestra let Diabaté take the lead with Mandé traditional music, accompanied not only by the Orchestra but by countrymen and frequent collaborators Kassé Mady Diabaté (who passed away in 2018 but whose voice is as vital as ever on this 2008 recording made at London’s Barbican Centre) and Lassana Diabaté on balafon. It’s a concert of consummate professionals, gentle and capable of coming together to create new sounds inspired by the old.
Kôrôlén speaks to a truly ancient past. Its name means ancestry in Mandinka, and for Diabaté, who comes from at least 70 generations of kora players, lineages of many kinds are central to music. His intricate kora styles come from traditions that long predate the Western art music typically associated with the orchestra. At the same time, this is an altogether modern collaboration. Touches of the cinematic (“Cantelowes Dream” quotes Morricone’s iconic main theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”) and theatrical (Muhly and Gardiner add particularly emotive clarinets and strings to “Moon Kaira” and “Mamadou Kanda Keita”) ground the piece in the current moment, one in which Diabaté plays sounds of today that are inextricable from those of the past.
Right away, the ensemble lets loose with waves of serenity. “Haïnamady Town” is a pastoral paradise made positively celestial through Toumani’s sprightly kora, which waltzes through the Orchestra’s spacious arrangements. On “Mama Souraka”, Lassana Diabaté’s balafon gives the track a buoyant rhythmic anchor, around which strings and winds bounce, pluck, and swirl, with Toumani as nimble as ever. No less blissful but just a little tighter is “Elyne Road”, where a falling motif on the kora evokes a feeling of settling into a place of rest by the end of the track.
A fluttering freeform introduction of solo kora begins “Cantelowes Dream”, a piece that morphs between tempos and moods throughout almost organically. Much more earthbound is “Moon Kaira”, where a bass-heavy orchestral foundation allows for solid footing and powerful movement forward. The kora and balafon continue to rise along with emboldened strings, culminating in a cascade of moving musical flows ending with a sharp, light-hearted stop. The closing piece is “Mamadou Kanda Keita”, which features the renowned Kassé Mady Diabaté’s heartfelt vocals, clear and impassioned, over the album’s vibrant final moments.
The appeal of Kôrôlén is manifold. It features some of Mali’s finest musicians of traditional folk and jali sounds working with one of the Western contemporary classical music world’s most versatile orchestras, all with the help of the always forward-thinking Nico Muhly and Ian Gardiner. This is music for meditating, for thinking, for relaxing, for dreaming. Each note sounds painstakingly placed and rehearsed but also deeply felt. Toumani Diabaté’s star, in particular, shines in new ways, and the continuities of past and present for him and his compatriots are constantly evident, speaking volumes about each player’s skill and love of performance in Kôrôlén.