One of the many wonderful things about Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival is the impressive array of collaborative events in the program (a few of which will be featured here soon). In what was sure to be one of the most memorable of these, kora master Toumani Diabaté and his Symmetric Orchestra teamed up with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for a special arrangement of his masterpiece of solo kora, The Mande Variations. Before Toumani and the RSNO took to the stage at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall we enjoyed a set by fellow Mande musicians Trio Da Kali.
With a combination of vocals, ngoni, and balafon, Trio Da Kali present ancient music in a contemporary setting. Formed in 2012 specifically to perform as part of a project by The Kronos Quartet, the individual members of the trio have impeccable musical roots, and the music they create reflects those influences.
Let’s start, as their set did, with the incredible vocals of Hawa Kasse Mady Diabaté. Hawa took to the stage alone to start the set, opening with an A Cappella performance that roused the audience from the very first note. I’m quite certain that Hawa is more than capable of filling the Royal Concert Hall’s auditorium with her outstanding voice without the benefit of a PA. When you learn that Hawa is the daughter of the giant of Malian song, Kasse Mady Diabaté, you begin to understand the origins of her impressive vocal abilities. Hawa was then joined by balafon maestro Lassana Diabaté. A former member of Afrocubism and Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra, Lassana’s cool, infectious rhythms have an immediate effect. More often the provider of bass lines and percussion, in Tri Da Kali the balafon is the main instrument and bass arrives in the form of ngoni player Mamadou Kouyaté. Mamadou’s father, the world-renowned ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté, developed a bass ngoni and it’s this instrument he plays in Trio Da Kali, and his playing really is remarkable. It’s a deep, laid back bamoko club beat that’s frequently engaged in intricate, almost bewildering conversation with Lassana’s balafon as it’s taken to astounding realms of adventurous creativity by its master. The trio’s short set of around 20 minutes was eagerly absorbed by the audience, who soon realized they were in the presence of a unique and significant talent.
Toumani Diabaté, from Mali, is widely recognised as the world’s leading exponent of the ancient North African harp – the kora. To say he’s following a family tradition would be an understatement, Toumani can trace his direct father to son lineage back through 72 generations of kora masters. His own father was the first person to record an album of kora music and Toumani himself has gained world-wide recognition through albums such as his transcendental 2005 collaboration with guitarist Ali Farke Toure, In the Heart of the Moon and his ground breaking mix of Bamoko club beats and kora tradition Boulevard de l’Independance.
As well as the warmest of welcomes there was also a keen sense of anticipation in the audience as Toumani took to the stage with members of his Symmetric Orchestra, including his son, Sidiki; also well on his way to taking up the family tradition.
Toumani’s beautifully warm and utterly spell-binding introduction was soon augmented by a gentle wash of strings and soft woodwind from the RSNO, with Sidiki on second kora. Wider variations on a central theme were explored in an enthralling conversation between orchestral xylophone and African balafon, and soft guitar joining the exploration of Toumani’s melodies.
Sidiki Diabaté was by no means restricted to performing in response to his father’s themes and improvisations, introducing one piece with a staccato rhythm of strings and balafon; orchestral strings and flute teasing the melody like a summer breeze and the piece closing as it opened, with Sidiki’s kora; this time employing a masterful touch of electronic enhancement.
The performance went on to include arresting kora improvisations, humour in a snatch of, would you believe it, Ennio Morricone and more rhythmically intense phases with stronger guitar, moody bass and dramatic father and son kora duets. In addition to adaptations of the classical side of Toumani’s repertoire, the ensemble went on to explore music from Toumani’s collaborations with the late Malian guitarist, Ali Farke Toure, providing more scope for Toumani’s improvisations.
It is, however, the warm calm of pieces like Elyne Road, enriched with strings and cor anglais; contrasting against the more dramatic setting used for Djourou Kara Nany that provide the most memorable highlights of the RSNO’s re-interpretation of The Mande Variations.
Unfortunately, Scotrail’s rather unhelpful approach to train timetables on a Sunday night meant I missed a third set (last train home at 2215!). It was, by all accounts, the part of the concert I would have enjoyed the most, with Symmetric Orchestra returning to the stage along with Trio Da Kali for some late night Bamako grooves and father/son kora duets.
The parts of this evening’s Celtic Connections presentation I was able to enjoy, however, were an unforgettable fusion of Malian and European classical traditions that felt both sincere and natural. Toumani Diabaté, his Symmetric Orchestra and the RSNO have created a performance in which two dramatically different musical cultures were able to find common ground and a united voice.
Review by: Neil McFadyen