Toumani Diabaté
& The London Symphony Orchestra

African music has famously produced some of the world’s most danceable grooves but, as Toumani Diabaté knows better than anyone, there is another gentler and more meditative side to its creative flow.

“African music has a mystic and classical side, a divinity,” says the world’s most celebrated kora player. “It is not only about dance, and people need to know this.”

It’s the reason why Toumani embraced the invitation to work with the London Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Clark Rundell. The result was a remarkable collaboration between West African griot/jeli tradition and European conservatory-trained classicism that thrilled those who were privileged to be in attendance when the work was performed at London’s Barbican in 2008. Now for the first time it is being made available to a wider audience as the album Kôrôlén (Mande for “ancestral”).

It’s a record that thrillingly touches many bases, from ancestral African to western classical via ambient and the contemporary neoclassical stylings of composers such as Max Richter and Nico Muhly. As Toumani puts it, the aim was to say to audiences, “Look at this music in a new way, look at African music in a different way.”

Never before had anyone composed for a kora as a soloist in a symphony orchestra and so the collaboration required detailed planning and preparation to find the common ground where the improvisational and interpretative strengths of Malian ancestral music could meet with the more structured demands of a classical orchestral score.

After Toumani and Clark had selected the material, Nico Muhly and Ian Gardiner were brought in as arrangers to create the template of a score with which the LSO could work. “The important thing was to write music for the orchestra that left room for the Malian musicians to speak over the top,” Gardiner explained.

Muhly adopted a similar approach. “I wanted to avoid the awkwardness of the pairing of non-western instruments with the orchestra and to create a subtle architecture that would allow the music simply to happen, to leave space for embellishment, subtle cues that Toumani could react to in his improvisations.”

Yet a template is only a template and once the arrangements were completed, the work of communication between two different musical traditions really began. Toumani made his own adjustments to the arrangements, changing where the beats were heard and creating space for the improvisations of his group of musicians, drawn from Mali’s most celebrated griot families.

Yet such a project could never sit still on the page. “This music is older than Beethoven,” as Toumani puts it, but at the same time it is music that exists in the moment and comes to life in the fingertips and imagination of the musicians playing it. And so the music was altered again in rehearsal under Clark Rundell’s baton, as the LSO explored the infinite possibilities with Toumani and his musicians: guitarist Fanta Mady Kouyaté, balafon player Lassana Diabaté, griot singer Kasse Mady Diabaté, ngoni player Ganda Tounkara and percussionist Fode Kouyate on calabash and tama.

Toumani explained the process: “The music is never the same. The base is there, but everyone has different dreams, so everybody plays the pieces differently, from person to person and moment to moment. Even though we have things in common together, everyone has their own intelligence.”

Through his work with such jazz luminaries as Brad Mehldau and Wayne Shorter, Clark knew it was essential to combine this creative shape-shifting with the codified orchestral score. Under his baton the LSO joyously bought into the challenge of working with African musicians whose instincts are improvisational as the music flows like water and no two performances are ever the same.

For Toumani it was a challenge, too, but one he relished with his long history of weaving the 21 strings of his kora into a myriad of new and different musical contexts. His playing is steeped in an inherited family tradition that dates back several centuries: his father Sidike Diabaté was the finest kora virtuoso of his generation and made the first internationally released solo kora recordings; at least two of the compositions on Kôrôlén are variations on ancestral pieces performed by Toumani’s father.

Born in Mali in 1965, Toumani’s name has become as synonymous with his instrument as Ravi Shankar’s name was with the sitar or Yehudi Menuhin with the violin since releasing his solo debut Kaira (recorded when he was just 21). The two albums he recorded with the flamenco group Ketama under the collective name Songhai are acknowledged as landmarks in global fusion, as is 1999’s Kulanjan, recorded with the American bluesman Taj Mahal and cited as a favourite by Barack Obama. Other notable collaborators have included Damon Albarn and Björk, as well as the Cuban stars of the Buena Vista Social Club, with whom he recorded 2010’s Grammy-nominated album AfroCubism.

In a more traditional vein, New Ancient Strings, his 1999 album of kora duets with Ballake Sissoko, is regarded as a classic, as is his 2008 solo kora album The Mande Variations. He also recorded two acclaimed collections of kora and guitar duets with the late, great Ali Farka Touré, the first of which, 2005’s In The Heart Of The Moon, won a Grammy for best traditional world album.

In addition to the Barbican concert heard on Kôrôlén there were further symphonic performances in Liverpool and Oslo, each with a different orchestra and with subtle variations in how the pieces were played, although the core of the material remained the same. The opening track “Haïnamady Town” is based on an old praise song titled “Kata Ndao.” The first piece that Toumani played to Clark Rundell, via a mix of inspired improvisation and empathetic arrangement, it has developed into a gravity-defying counterpoint of kora, strings and woodwind.

“Mama Souraka,” based on a piece frequently performed by Toumani’s father under the title “Djourou Kara Nany,” is a dreamy confection of shimmering string arpeggios topped by solo oboe and flutes.

“Elyne Road” and “Cantelowes Dream,” two tunes played solo by Toumani on his 2008 album The Mande Variations, augment his exquisite kora with gracefully elegant orchestral arrangements and a playful quote from Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Two further pieces, “Moon Kaira” and “Mamadou Kanda Keita” (the latter with a soulful vocal by the late Kasse Mady), essay radical transformations of tunes heard in different form on In The Heart of the Moon.

With this record Toumani urges us to “look at African music in a new way.” Yet Kôrôlén does more than that. It changes our perceptions of how different cultures can come together and create something that transcends the artificial barriers that too often divide us. And that has never been more needed than right now.

For more information, please contact Joe Cohen, Krista Williams or Carla Sacks 212.741.1000 at Sacks & Co.