Sidiki Dibaté released his first LP of kora music in 1970. Mali: Ancient Strings was an album that took the sounds of the kora and showed the melodious and spiritual capabilities of the sound that have never been demonstrated before. The kora is an instrument like no other. A 21-string lute-like harp which has become one of the defining sounds of West Africa.
Sidiki’s son Toumani is now widely seen as the greatest living artist to play the kora. He carried on the legacy of his father and brought in elements of bass, freeform improvisation and revived ancient melodies to create brand new shapes and experiences out of this mysterious and beguiling instrument.
In October of 2014, Toumani teamed up with his son (who shares the name of his grandfather) for a collaborative EP for World Circuit. The release perfectly embodied the familial spirit of kora music. The songs bridged the generational gap between the pair for a sound that felt complete and synergetic in every way. The touching and effective sounds of the kora came to the fore on Lampedusa - a moving song dedicated to African migrants who died attempting to reach European shores.
Toumani and Sidiki are returning to the UK this summer to bring the inimitable sounds of the kora to as many ears as they can. While Sidiki Jr might have an unflinching grasp on the sounds of populist West African radio, he has cleared the schedule to play these shows with his father and recreate the special sounds of the collaborative release.
Ahead of their set at Field Day in Victoria Park, we caught up with Toumani to find out more about this deeply personal sound and the remarkable journey it has taken him on.
With two generations of the family involved, how important are the family values to the sound and the performance?
Family values are at the front in everything that we do, artistically, intellectually, like father, like son. Of course I play different to my son just like I play different of my father. We have our own personality but we can’t forget that we are the 71st and the 72nd generation of the Diabate Family playing kora.
What do you think it is about your music that is able to transfer to western cultures more than other traditional forms of music?
The sound of this instrument is magic. With only four fingers we can compose amazing melodies which combine very well with western music. I was always very open to collaborate with different music styles and my son Sidiki - 24 years old - is involved in many music projects which combine the kora with rap, pop, rock and another western influences.
What has been your experience of playing to western crowds in comparison to in Mali?
Thank God the reaction of the audience is always good. No matter if we play in a festival in Australia or we play in Mali or Senegal. The main difference is the stage. If it is an open air festival where the people are able to dance and to move the body or if is a theatre or a cultural centre. The audience in Mali or in west Africa countries know the kora very well but the western crowds sometimes discover the instrument for the first time.
You inherited the Kora from 71 continuous generations, how important is it to you that your son carries on the art-form?
I’m very proud of him. He was not obliged to continue with this tradition. If he’s a great musician it is because he has worked very hard since he was very little playing the kora, piano and the percussion as well. Now he’s a pop star in Mali and produces and arrange most part of the tunes that you can listen at the west African radio.
You have collaborated with many other style of music, including flamenco, jazz, blues - what is the importance of such collaborations to you?
My main goal is show this music around the world. So the collaborations with other musicians are very important because they allow me to put my music in different cultural contexts. When I play with Bjork or Damon Albarn I play Malian music from seven hundred years ago and I make that both styles combine perfectly.
Tell us a bit about the motivation behind Lampedusa, how important is that composition for you?
We were very shocked - Sidiki and myself - while we were recording in London in November 2013 and we watched on TV that more than 350 people had died in the sea trying to arrive in Europe by boat. Since them many Lampedusas have happened. Nothing changes. I don’t know the solution. I don’t know how to do but I think we must talk about it. This is why Sidiki and I composed the song, to talk about it.
You’ve worked with everyone from Björk to Taj Mahal, who else would you love to collaborate with?
We don’t have specific names. When we arrive at the opportunity to collaborate with someone different we are always ready. I know my son likes new artists and I prefer old legends but any proposal is very welcome. My relation with Damon Albarn from Blur is very special. I feel a big respect for him.
Are you excited to play to a London crowd at Field Day?
I’ve played two times before and I liked the enthusiastic audience at Field Day very much. For Sidiki its his first time and I’m sure he will never forget even if he usually plays at big football stadiums in West Africa. He’s preparing something special for June 6th.
How would you describe the sounds of the kora to those who have never heard it?
I think the kora is the sound of the soul. The kora touches your soul and the notes arrive very deep. You can feel to dance, to cry, to sleep or to jump but you don’t know why. This instrument allows the musician to play the bass line, the melody and the solo improvisation at the same time, so one musician seems like three musicians playing at the same time.
Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté play Field Day London on 060615. Get tickets here.
Words: Louise Caldwel