A conversation with Malian kora master Toumani Diabate
Mali’s Toumani Diabate  is indisputedly the world’s finest kora player. Period. And frankly, he should be. His family has been playing the 21-string harp-lute for more than 700 years. And you thought the Watson family had a fine stringed-instrument pedigree.
Diabate is a Griot, a sort of cultural ambassador of the Mandinkan people of West Africa. As such, he is tasked with preserving and passing on the traditions of his people and, of course, the kora. But as a world-class, Grammy-winning musician, he is something of a global ambassador as well. And via collaborations with the likes of Taj Mahal , Ali Farka Toure , Bjork  and, most recently, banjo master Bela Fleck , he has sought to raise the instrument’s profile throughout the world.
And, oh, what an instrument it is! The kora is made from a large calabash gourd, cut in half and wrapped in cow skin. Players pluck the strings with four fingers — both thumbs and index fingers — allowing bass lines, melodies and improvisational runs to be delivered simultaneously. Though they bear a faint resemblance to the harp, the kora’s fluid, languid tones are like virtually nothing else in Western music, especially in the hands of a virtuoso such as Diabate.
Having just wrapped up a tour with Fleck this month, Diabate is now on the road with his own ensemble, the Symmetric Orchestra. The group’s 10 members claim origins throughout what was in the 13th-century the Malian Mandinka Empire, from Mauritania to the Ivory Coast. They bring similarly wide-ranging musical and cultural influences, combining traditional West African instrumentation and composition with contemporary counterparts, such as the electric guitar and bass, and modern styles from blues to flamenco and salsa.
Seven Days recently spoke with Diabate by phone, in advance of his performance on the Flynn MainStage and at Hopkins Center this week.
Seven Days: I have to admit that I’m largely unfamiliar with the kora. Could you explain a little bit about how it works and its significance?
Toumani Diabate: The kora has three possibilities. You can play the bass line. And you can play melody. And you can improvise, all at the same time. It is the most important instrument in West Africa. Because the kora — there is nothing that is like the kora, you know?
The second point is that the kora is only from West Africa, from Mandinka countries, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast … only that enclave. And within West Africa we have, of course, other instruments like the balafon. But you can see the balafon in different countries, different continents. Like in China. They have a balafon. In South Africa, they have a balafon. But the kora is only from West Africa, for Mandinka people.
SD: I’m told the instrument has been a part of your family for a very long time. Exactly how many generations has your family played the kora?
SD: That’s amazing!
TD: (Laughs) Yes.
SD: What does it mean to you, personally, to be part of a tradition that is hundreds of years old?
TD: You know, we’re talking about the culture. For me, culture is not a book that you read. For me, the culture is family. And I’m proud and glad to be part of [another] generation. Not everywhere today you can see people playing instruments from 71 generations, you know? It’s a great feeling and I’m happy to be part of that. I’m happy to promote it.
SD: How is the tradition passed down? Were you given kora lessons? Is it strictly an oral, or rather, an “aural” tradition?
TD: The kora is for the Griot people. We are ambassadors of the culture. So, you have to be born Griot. You can’t become Griot. And the Griot family is like a school where you learn how to play. You learn how to talk, because it is an oral tradition. The Griot’s job is to make a communication. But ambassadors are also storytellers. So the Griot family is a school where you learn all of that.
But for my side, I didn’t learn the kora with anybody. The kora was a gift from God to me. And from different generations, the music was already in my blood. My father, and grandfather before him … and so on, they were all great musicians. Great, great musicians.
SD: You recently finished touring with Bela Fleck. Could you talk a little bit about that experience?
TD: Did you know that the banjo is from Africa?
SD: I did know that!
TD: Oh, yeah? Well, the people who came here brought the banjo. The banjo is like the ngoni, our country’s traditional guitar. So Bela took the banjo back to Africa and met great musicians from Africa there, you know? I’m happy to be part of this project. And the experience of playing with Bela is great. Bela is a great, great, great musician. Very intelligent. And a very inspired guy. Inspired playing. Every day playing with Bela is different. I love playing with Bela.
SD: You released Djelika in 1995. And at that point in time, electronic instruments and synthesizers and drum machines were beginning to make serious inroads in Malian music. Yet you specifically chose to record an all-acoustic sound on that album. Why was it important for you to make that decision?
TD: You know, I’ve played with Bela. I’ve played with Taj Mahal. With Bjork, which is electronic music. But it is good to have acoustic music. Because my concerts, playing Toumani Diabate alone, or Toumani Diabate and his friends, it is not only the concert. It is also education for you guys. Because we come from long generations of musicians, musical families. And we have our traditional instruments. So I think it’s always good to show that to people in different in cultures.
But I feel people sometimes need to go in that way [with electronic instruments], because synthesizers, keyboards and those things, it’s good, you know? Some people like it. But some people didn’t like it, you know? But I’m happy to do albums like Djelika, that are acoustic and people love it.
I’m not interested in making music that people can just listen to for [a short time], like a commercial, maybe. I like to play music that people can come and listen to for many years. Like a book, that’s the idea. All CDs are historical. So, you should have something to say so people can keep listening for many years, you know?
SD: So, when you play with the Symmetric Orchestra, which incorporates more modern sounds with traditional ones, how do you manage to maintain the integrity of the kora?
TD: Well, music doesn’t have any borders. With Symmetric Orchestra, the kora is in the middle of this project. As I told you before, the kora has three possibilities. You can play bass, melody and improvisation all at one time. So the bass played by the kora, is the same bass played by the electric bass. The melody is played by the electric guitar. And I’ll improvise with different traditional instruments in the band, like the ngoni, djembe, balafon. And we put the voice on top of all that, you know?
So it’s still the same music. The kora is a complete instrument. So it is for you guys to understand more what is the role of the kora.
SD: Listening to your most recent solo album, The Mande Variations, I honestly did a double take. Correct me if I’m wrong, but at the beginning of “Cantelowes,” you quote the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
TD: (Laughs) Yes!
SD: I thought so! And is that why you included that? To help American audiences understand, to make the kora more accessible?
TD: Yes. Well, I’m still learning the kora. In my mind, I’m still learning. But when I was young, starting to play kora, this movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was playing. It was a cowboy movie come to Africa — and we would get some Bollywood movies from India, too. But this is not part of my music. It’s just to make more sense, to give a quick break going back to when I was first starting to play. As the French people would say, this movie is a souvenir for me. And also it’s a souvenir for you. It is just about communication.