I traveled to Mali to delve deeper into West African music, right in the heart of it. Grammy-winning kora player Toumani Diabate (famous in the west for his collaborations with Ali Farke Toure, Taj Mahal, Bjork) invited me to further my playing of kora music on the guitar with him in Bamako and to connect with Malian musicians there.
The trip was fantastic, soul-stirring. I was based in Bamako for 4 weeks, with periodic excursions to villages and to the city of Segou. I was hosted by Toumani and his extended family, who were lovely and gracious, and welcomed me like family. There was a constant flow of kora music, musicians, community, children, laughter, sweet tea at all times of day and night.
The great Malian kora player Toumani Diabate.
The musicians I met in Mali are glorious players, and I felt honored to be appreciated and welcomed as a musician among them. Toumani is a sublime musician, with a great well of inspiration and the ability to express deep humanity with immediacy and mastery. It was all pleasure to connect and play and learn from him. The musician with whom I collaborated most was Sidiki Diabate, Toumani’s son, a young and innovative kora player, whose band, Iba One and Sidiki Diabate, is at the top of the Malian charts.
Toumani was keen for me to play with Sidiki. WIth Toumani’s encouragement, Sidiki and I met up, put together a body of material and began recording while I was there. Over the coming weeks, we will be collaborating on filling out and completing this recording in our respective locales. What a blessing to collaborate with an adventurous young player on another continent and to work on the project with Toumani, such an internationally loved and gracious musician.
The innovative and renowned kora player, Sidiki Diabate (Toumani’s son).
I played with musicians in villages as well, like Makan Doumbia, a hunter in the village of Kirina who plays the simbi, the Mande hunters harp (see the picture below). And Abdoulaye Kouyate, the griot of the village Segoukoro, who plays guitar and ngoni (a photo is on my Mali blog). The music is almost of another world, and musical communications flowed beautifully.
In the village of Kirina, playing with Makan Doumbia, a hunter who plays the simbi, the traditional Mande hunter’s harp.
It was certainly a fertile trip for my exploration and learning in West African music. In the US, I’ve been directly engaging with Malian music for about a decade, collaborating with Grammy-winning kora player Mamadou Diabate and with Wassoulou kamale ngoni (hunters harp) master Mamadou Sidibe, and developing ways to translate music from traditional West African stringed instruments to guitar. My time in Mali allowed me to refine and expand my approach to playing kora music on the guitar, learning from maestros who have lived and breathed the instrument since they were toddlers.
While in Bamako, I was blessed to perform at some great venues and events. The picture of me playing below is at the Diplomat, a popular concert venue there, where Toumani invited me to open his show. I was honored to also play at Ali Farke Toure’s house – at a celebration of his life, a vibrant event where I’d estimate 1500 people came out to honor this beloved Malian musician on the anniversary of his death. A number of West African artists performed deep into the night and the event was televised on Mali’s national television. I generally chose to play some kora music on the guitar, which was invariably greeted with hearty ha!s, pleased laughter, soulful audiences clapping away to the groove of this gringo playing their beloved music on the guitar. An enormous pleasure for me.
Performing at The Diplomat in Bamako.
There are ongoing relationships and collaborations springing from my trip and the lovely people there. Stay tuned – I’ll be sure to to keep you abreast of new developments here on the website.
Recording with Sidiki Diabate at Studio Africa.
Walter and friends in the village of Segou Koro with Koke Koulibaly, Chief of the village.
Walter and Toumani.