Toumani Diabaté: Yes, that’s right. I chose musicians from all the different countries that made up the Mande empire – and from across the generations, too. We get together to play at the Hogon club in Bamako every Friday night. It’s a club I set up myself around ten years ago now. Anyway, the atmosphere’s basically like a jam session, it’s like one big village fête. The group really brings the house down, but in fact the gigs are actually work sessions for me. They’re really rehearsals in front of a live audience that give the Symmetric Orchestra the chance to try out certain tracks on stage, playing them live several times to mixed audiences. And as soon as we got positive vibes about such and such a track, we’d go ahead and record it together. What we did was hire the main conference hall at the Hôtel Mandé in Bamako and transformed it into a studio. All the tracks were recorded live there, just as if we were doing a show. But we didn’t overdose, you know. Everything was recorded in a single take to keep the atmosphere, that special African warmth. And it was like it worked straight off – that’s the feel you get from the album in any case!
The second striking feature about the Symmetric Orchestra’s music is that everything is totally structured around the kora …
I composed absolutely everything on the kora, then sent it to the musicians afterwards. There are some songs taken from my old albums. The opening track on the album Djélika has been reworked as YaFama on the new album, for instance. The wonderful thing about the kora is that it’s an all-round instrument – at one and the same time it can do bass, accompaniment and solo. Anyway, what we did was take the bassline played on a kora and then transpose it to electric bass. Meanwhile, the accompaniment was reworked by rhythm guitar and the improvisations were shared between the kora, the balafon and traditional instruments and modern guitar.
If there’s one single instrument that represents Mande culture in the world today, it’s the kora. You know, the kora’s really everything to me. It sums up my whole family history. I represent the 71st generation of ‘griot’ and kora-player in my family. And the 72nd generation is already underway – my son, who’s fourteen now, has also started playing the kora now. It’s awe-inspiring when you think about it, 71 generations of culture handed down from father to son! That’s real history, real tradition for you. Very few families in the world can lay claim to that… The other amazing thing about the kora is that it’s the only instrument that faces you when you play it. The relationship between a musician and his kora is like man and wife!
Yes, of course it is! 700 years ago, you had the empire in Mali, you had the great Mande empire and the king actually lived in Mali. It was as a result of colonisation that the Mande empire got divided up in the end. Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, part of Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast were all provinces of the Mande empire ruled over by envoys of the king, who had his base in Mali. Mali is really a vital crossroads, at the heart of West African culture. The most striking examples of that are the fact that Malian music is so diverse, from North to South, East to West… There are artists ranging from Salif Keita, Ali Farka Touré, rest his soul… Rokia Traoré, Oumou Sangaré and so on. They all have a very important place on the music scene and musicians from neighbouring countries all come to Mali to get in touch with their roots.
Do you think that culture is the only part of the Mande empire that helps affirm its existence in 2006?
At a time when Africa is beset with so many political problems we felt it was necessary to set up a federative orchestra as a unifying force. The Symmetric’s music is about peace, love and encouragement. As a ‘griot’, I’m a leader for peace and the majority of the Symmetric – let’s say about 80% of the musicians in the orchestra – are also ‘griots’, so that makes us all leaders for peace.
Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra Boulevard de l’Indépendance (World Circuit Records) 2006
Toumani Diabaté and the Symmetric Orchestra are on tour of Europe from 21 April. The group perform at Le Cabaret Sauvage on 11 May 2006.
Translation : Julie Street