Saturday, 7 November 2015

A not-so-obscure African duo

Toumani & Sidiki Diabate from
Last night we went to a concert of African music in Chalon. Not expecting much from an obscure pair of players we were rather surprised at the number of people in the audience. Unbeknown to us, these guys – father and son Toumani & Sidiki Diabate from Mali- are very famous.

When the music started, I was surprised how like a celtic harp it sounded, not the African sound I am used to. The music was mesmerising and as the evening wore on I was quite blown away by the cross between early jazz rhythm and Gallic music that they created. I can’t describe it any better than that. I have found a video from Glastonbury 2014 (I told you they were famous) where they are playing if you are interested in hearing what it is all about.

Beautiful kora from
The instruments they were playing were koras. Father (Toumani) took time out to explain the instrument and how it is played. It is half a calabash covered in antelope skin, the strings used to be made of antelope skin as well, but nowadays they use fishing line instead. The tuning pegs have also been modernised and now they are built using harp/guitar technology. He didn’t say how many strings he had, but internet sources suggest that there are 21 or 25 strings. Only four digits are used to play the instrument, the thumb and index finger of each hand. The left thumb plays the base rhythm, the right thumb plays a basic tune (a bit like guitar scale plucking) and the two index fingers are used - in his words - to “improvise”.

There is no written music, the tunes and playing skills are passed down from father to son and their family, in particular, can be traced back for 71 generations, in the case of Toumani and so 72 generations for Sidiki, all kora players - quite some family tradition.

Intricate finger work - from the BBC video
In true French style every man and his dog was thanked just before the last number even the “village chief of Chalon-sur-Saône” got a thank you, although I am not sure they would have thanked him if they had known of his political views.

Their final piece was entitled Lampedusa, a haunting melody that they had written lest we forget the continuing tragedy of all the people who have drowned off that coast.

It was an enchanting evening and one I would certainly repeat if they came to somewhere near here again.

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