WITH this exhilarating concert, Toumani Diabaté showed that he has taken the West African kora to new heights. The 21-stringed gourd harp has the reach of a western concert harp and its repertoire is fuelled by the wisdom of praise songs dating back to the 13th century – a tradition Diabaté has inherited as a dynastic griot, or living archivist of his people’s history.
Extraordinarily beautiful melodies fired by bittersweet human philosophies and histories were underpinned by shifting bass notes and decorated with improvisations involving shimmering riffs and filigree cadences. Pieces like Kaira, Ruby and Soumbou built slowly to evoke profound meditative moments.
Diabaté was well served by support-act Revere, whose cameo songs played chamber-style on guitar, violin, cello and harp, encapsulated a euphoric melancholia.
Moving into their mood, Diabaté began with a modern extemporisation whose slightly disconcerting, minimal melody set the scene for both intensity of play and virtuosity. His three slightly underused musicians turned his solos into rhythmic dances by transposing the triple kora parts onto guitars and drums.
In between pieces, in excellent English, Diabaté told the story of the kora, imbuing an impressive concert with the air of a salon. Finishing with Cantelowes and Jarabi, he returned for an encore whose whirlpools of mesmerising sound were created, he said, in the hope that despite economic crisis and war the way forward would be spiritual and peaceful. As someone in the queue to greet him afterwards said, ultimately this music takes you to that serene place we too often forget exists.