kirike 90Sparser than most Malian music, this release puts the spotlight firmly on Diabaté’s voice.

Label: Six Degrees
Time: 8 tracks / 48 mins.

Malian music covers various styles, but often gathers around the plucked strings of the kora (a large, upright 21-stringed instrument). This one gives more attention to the four-stringed, lute-like ngoni and the wooden xylophone-like balafon. But centre-stage in this collection is the voice of Kassé Mady Diabaté, much-admired in his homeland.

Diabaté is from the Griot caste, a little like the Welsh bards: poets with wisdom and authority. So his songs convey traditional values. The first two take up qualities of the hunter, such as patience, endurance, intelligence, boldness and determination. And the third (“Ko Kuma Magni,” meaning ‘What People Say’) is a cautionary tale about how listening to gossip can wreck a marriage and put a strain on community relationships.
Like two other Six Degrees releases that we have covered, this one features kora player Ballaké Sissoko, if only on two tracks, and his regular collaborator French cellist Vincent Segal, who produced this collection and makes occasional appearances to add the gentlest wash behind the ethnic instrumentation.

With far less of the kora’s intricate plucked notes on this release, the sound is very much stripped back, placing the emphasis firmly on Diabaté’s voice. Despite being an elder statesman of song now, his vocals are still very much on form, if sometimes sounding his age. ‘The man with the voice of velvet’ sounds calmly impassioned as his words sail purposefully over rippling rhythms (which, on “Sori,” are insistent and hypnotic, just like a continuously-ringing peal of bells).

On “Sadjo” (an affectionate song for a locally-loved hippopotamus) Diabaté sings only to a more chordal backing from the balafon.

Salif Keita reportedly once described Diabaté as, “the greatest singer in Mali” and on this showing, I can understand it. Barack Obama once cited Kulanjan, the superb album by Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabaté that included Kassé Mady Diabaté, as one of his favourite albums of all time. This one shows him singing with class players, whom Segal has released to play with ease and skill.

Derek Walker

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