Toumani Diabaté sizedToumani and his son Sidiki, come from a long line of griots, from Mali and they can trace back the family line an impressive 72 generations, all kora players, the knowledge passed from father to son for centuries.  Their instrument, the kora, or African harp to some has 21 strings and in the hands of a master, emits cascades of beautiful sound. The new album, ‘Toumani & Sidiki’ is rich in texture and melodies and the playing bright and clear, there is none of the squeak or scratch of strings as with a lesser player.  The strings are tickled, strummed or stroked into torrents of bells, lutes or piano, or there is more attack and the tones ring out; it is a flawless album but it is certainly not clinical.  Curiously, it is simultaneously stimulating and relaxing so I was looking forward to an inspiring evening listening to them live.

The concert had been rescheduled to the end of their UK tour after visa problems prevented their appearance at the Brighton Festival, of which this is part.  I have seen Toumani in action with a band at Womad a couple of years ago, but I was looking forward to seeing him with just his son.

Sidiki took the stage first and played alone for the first song, as if to prove his own virtuosity ahead of the appearance of his father, and what a highly skilled musician he is in his own right.  Toumani then appeared to rapturous applause and settled behind his slightly smaller instrument.  Father and son played so intuitively, mainly with eyes shut and they navigated the sophisticated melodies like fish in a shoal turning together.  Only twice Toumani shouted out a command to his son, perhaps to play louder, otherwise it was complete simpatico.

Just when I thought a melodic theme would be repeated, it would be explored and ultimately taken further.  There were runs and climaxes in the tunes, Toumani and Sidiki taking it in turns to either hold down the song or take flight in their soloing.  I don’t know the album well enough yet to have picked out the titles of songs, and all of the tracks being instrumentals made it harder still, but I did recognise much of the performance from the CD, although some of the tracks were longer than the studio versions.  Toumani is renowned for not doing rehearsals but just turning up and letting the magic happen; in fact it was more like the music flowed through them rather than coming from them per se.

I was shocked when the pair took a bow after an hour and the crowd took to their feet in a grateful ovation; it only felt like 20 minutes had passed.  Toumani, a man of few words, addressed the audience at last greeting Brighton and saying he loves the city and that he would be back. He also raised awareness of the continuing troubles in his home country and dedicated the encore to the victims of the Lampedusa boat tragedy.  When I got my CD signed afterwards, I shook their gifted hands and thanked them but forgot to ask if they felt their ancestors were with them while they played; I bet they were there.  The CD “Toumani & Sidiki” is out now and comes highly recommended.