Widely regarded as the greatest living kora player, Toumani Diabete, from Mali, and his 10-piece band drawn from various West African nations — the Symmetric Orchestra — delivered a sublimely engaging two-hour performance on March 12 at the Sydney Opera House.
Diabete comes from a long line of kora players, or jali. The kora, a resonant 21-string instrument that resembles a hybrid of lute and harp, is to West African culture what the flamenco guitar is to Spain or the sitar to India.
Made from a large, halved, hide-covered calabash gourd with a grooved neck extending upwards, the instrument is played with the thumb and forefinger of both hands — producing inventive bass lines, sweet chordal riffs and dazzingly bright improvisational runs.
Taught by his father Sidiki Diabete — the so-called "king of kora" — he started playing at the age of five and made his concert debut at the age of thirteen. Just as Diabete's father taught him, Diabete is likewise preparing his own son to inherit the jali mantle — a duty, he told the audience, that fills his life with meaning.
From the very start of his career, Diabete was hailed for his rich and complex, yet emotionally direct, playing style. In addition to excelling as a traditional kora player, Diabete emerged as an innovative band leader who helped to create a new fusion by combining the kora and other local instruments with guitar, bass, keyboards and western percussion.
The result of this ongoing experimentation is an anciently funky music that is rhythmically intense, harmonically sophisticated and drenched in soulful melody.
Diabete, who proudly claims to trace his jali lineage back 700 generations, addressed the audience at length, in the time-honoured manner of a griot (traditional story-teller, teacher of wisdom, oral historian and seer).
In the 14th Century, he explained, when the powerful and enlightened Mandinka Empire ruled much of West Africa, the kora was the court and folk instrument of choice. Later, when the European imperialists came, the region was divided among them and a long era of cultural oppression ensued.
Yet the music survived in spite of the colonial onslaught, and was carefully handed down from generation to generation, as it had been since ancient times. In Diabete's words, "they tried to own the music, but they could not own it" — a comment that elicited spontaneous applause from many audience members.
After expressing his philosophical rejection of the First World cult of power and materialism — a cult that has exacted such a devastating toll on the colonised peoples of the world — Diabete gently exhorted the audience to reflect on his message. Music, compassion and tolerance, rather than money, greed and exploitation, the griot argued, should be the international language.
A powerful sense of historical consciousness underpins every note, beat and word played and sung by the Symmetric Orchestra. Despite its contemporised setting, the music is a living link to a vanished empire and a profound statement of West African cultural survival.
There is beauty, too, in abundance. Diabete ended the concert with an incandescently evocative solo piece, "Elyne Road", from his latest album, The Mande Variations — a sweet and elegiac lullaby to float home with.