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Past meets present in Malian's music

Diabate bringsancient harmonies into 21st century

Toumani Diabate, who has been playing a 21-string instrument called the kora since he was 5 years old, makes traditional music with influences ranging from flamenco to jazz. (rebecca blackwell/associated press/file 2006)

BAMAKO, Mali -- On a moonlit African night in a leafy open-air bar, kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate is peeling off an ethereal flood of kaleidoscopic riffs from a 21-string cow-skin-covered harp like one his forefathers have played for more than 70 generations.

Past a motley array of modern-day musicians and a phalanx of traditional drummers, a twirling 2 a.m. crowd of Bamako's hippest has come to pay homage to a man many regard as the greatest kora player on the planet.

The music is East meets West, past meets present, a 21st-century take on ancient Malian harmonies that smacks of flamenco, Far Eastern strings, and the winding legato improvisations of free-form jazz.

For Diabate, who comes to the Somerville Theatre Thursday, the show is much more than just music: It's the preservation of culture and tradition, a way to keep alive the spirit of the defunct Mande empire that once stretched across a vast swath of West Africa.

Long before the region's history was recorded in books, it was told through a caste of griots, musical storytellers. Seven centuries later, the songs are still sung over powerful rhythms and haunting pentatonic scales produced on traditional instruments like the banjo-esque ngoni ; the wooden, xylophone-like balafon ; and the kora.

"If West Africa was a living being, the griot would be the blood," Diabate says over lunch at his Bamako home, scooping couscous and fish from a silver tray on his Persian-carpeted floor. "As griots, we are the memory, we are the link between society and the past."

Born in Bamako in the mid-1960s -- he doesn't know exactly when -- Diabate began playing the kora at the age of 5.

Formally educated for only around 10 years, he was debilitated in his youth by a disease that shriveled his right leg and forces him to walk with a crutch. Yet he went on to stardom, revered by listeners thousands of miles away, idolized at home.

The first kora player to win a Grammy remains humble and infinitely good-natured, never too busy to shake the hand of a fan, even while he's performing.

In 1987, he recorded his debut CD, a renowned acoustic solo work called "Kaira," which means peace.

He went on to exhibit a bold knack for experimentation, collaborating with Spanish flamenco guitarists and Japanese musicians. A 1999 alliance with US bluesman Taj Mahal, "Kulanjan," perfectly melded West African rhythms with American steel-string guitar.

The same year he released "New Ancient Strings," an exquisite set of cascading acoustic kora duets performed with Ballake Sissoko. The work was an interpretation of "Ancient Strings," the seminal 1970s recording made by their fathers and credited with introducing kora music to the world.

Diabate says such instrumentals allow foreigners to understand Mande culture.

"Music has its own language," Diabate says. In the modern world, "you have lots of books about the histories. We have the Internet, we have mobile phones. . . . Now what we are doing is bringing the Mande culture outside of this continent to meet different cultures. We're still griots, but we are griots in a different way."

In Bamako, which looks more like an overgrown town than a capital city, Diabate lives a humble life in an unremarkable three-story villa with his wife, four children, and dozens more family members. Women cook in the open downstairs. Boys sit on a dirt road out front, plucking koras on wooden benches.

Diabate has funneled royalties into a guest house-rehearsal studio where local musicians and sometimes foreign visitors who trek to see him stay rent-free. He also teaches 40 young kora players at the Mali Conservatory of Music.

"I never want to live outside my country," he says. "I love my country and I love what I do."

Diabate says he taught himself to play because his father, late kora legend Sidiki Diabate, was too busy to teach him.

The younger Diabate is similarly afflicted. When not on tour in Europe or the United States, he's constantly taking calls on two cellphones at home, where he greets an endless stream of relatives and friends.

After finishing a show at his club, the Hogon, one Friday at 4 a.m., he was up again a few hours later, performing a quiet duet with his guitarist for the opening of a government building. That night, he played again at a staid government dinner, a precursor to a late-night French Embassy gig.

Diabate says he listens to music to relax, and cites some unlikely favorites.

"You can't believe what I'm going to tell you -- one of my favorite bands is the Scorpions," he says, referring to the German heavy-metal act. Other influences: AC/DC, Tracy Chapman, banjo-style folk, and Celtic and Indian tunes.

Mali's president frequently calls on the kora star to perform for visiting heads of state, much like Mande kings of old called on praise-singing griots to perform for royal courts.

In July, Diabate's 50-man Symmetric Orchestra released "Boulevard de l'Independance," named after the thoroughfare that bisects Bamako's dusty, moped-packed streets. The sounds range from Cuban-Senegalese salsa to horn-driven funk, but the kora is always at the heart.

Diabate has played variations on the songs for years at Hogon, whose diminutive stage looks more like the porch stoop of a private home than one of Bamako's best live music venues.

Last year, Diabate won a Grammy with "Heart of the Moon," a series of unrehearsed duets with the late Malian blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure. The songs were recorded in just two hours.

Toure was not a griot; you have to be born one. But for Diabate, there is no question his traditions will live on.

Toure's son, Vieux, stops by the rehearsal studio to say hello. Vieux went on tour in France with Diabate's son, Sidiki, last year.

Leaning back behind his kora, cigarette smoke rising toward fading yellow walls, Diabate smiles.

"They made beautiful music," Diabate says. "Vieux is my son now."

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