Toumani Diabate, maestro of the instrument called the kora from Mali, talks about his music representing movements up and down the Niger river that flows through his country. Diabate, who belongs to a family that has been playing the kora from around 700 years ago, plays the 24-stringed instrument and recreates the atmosphere of a whole orchestra of strings that goes up and down the river.

Ever since I heard Diabate play live for two nights consecutively in Cape Town in 2009, his music has been my companion, especially in solitude. I have been fascinated by how close the melodies that are played on the kora remind me of Hindustani classical music and yet are distinctively different. Even if I have since then listened to other kora players and ensembles, Diabate remains my favourite, and it is him that I have turned to many times in the lockdown.

Diabate has been deeply influenced by another great Malian musician, Ali Farka Toure. Diabate’s father, Sidiki Diabate, played the kora along with Farka Toure. Later, a young Toumani Diabate started playing along with him and this was to be an enduring partnership until Ali Farka Toure passed away in 2006. My favourite piece of theirs is Debe.

Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate perform Debe in Bozar.

Diabate composed a masterpiece called Elyne Road, which is part of his album Mande Variations, which he dedicated to Ali Farka Toure. This is the piece that I have been listening to endlessly in the last couple of weeks.

Elyne Road.

Also to South African guitarist Derek Gripper’s interpretation of Diabate’s music. Gripper, who spent several years transcribing the music of the kora for the guitar, has several fascinating renderings of Diabate’s compositions, such as Kaira.

Derek Gripper’s interpretation of Toumani Diabate’s music.

Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.