The Kora is a 700 year old 21 string harp from Africa. 71 generations of Mali musician Tounami Diabate‘s family have made it their own, passed from father to son in the griot tradition. Nowadays he is world renowned for his virtuosic ability and better still he’s up for anything. He can play by himself, covering bass, melody and solo parts without overdubs as he did on his recent The Mande Variations (World Circuit), or with Western collaborators like Taj Mahal, Damon Albarn (Gorillaz) or even Bjork. “When I play with Damon or Bjork I don’t play their music. I just play my music. They play their music and we put it together and it will become a new music,” he offers. And the results can be sublime such as his duo with legendary Mali bluesman Ali Farka Toure which won them a Grammy.
He also fronts his own big band, the Symmetric Orchestra, a 25 piece fusion between traditional and contemporary instrumentation that plays every friday night in Bamako Mali. Diabate describes it as a Pan African band, an opportunity to provide an alternative to the negative African stereotypes perpetuated by the media. ” We want to rebuild,” he offers, before launching into the Orchestra’s machinations. “The kora is in the middle of this project,” he states, “even though you can play bass, melody and improvise on kora it’s not always good to do it at the one time. So for example the bass played from the kora is now played by the electric bass, so we are sharing.” Refugees from the Sydney festival, Tounami Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra are playing as a 9 piece at Hamer Hall tonight Wed 20th Jan. If you’re reading this too late check the Orchestra’s sublime 2006 album Boulevard De L’Independence (World Circuit) and weep for what you have missed or if you can hold out until Feb the final collaboration with Ali Farka Toure is due.
One member of the Symmetric Orchestra making his own waves these days is the finger picking Ngoni (spike lute – an ancestor to the banjo) maestro Bassekou Kouyate. His debut album Segu Blue was incredible, a gentle low key meditative work based around four Ngoni’s all played by his family. His follow up I Speak Fula (Sub Pop/ Stomp) finds Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba on a subsidiary of Sub Pop called Next Ambience, a label designed in their words with “an emphasis on mind-blowing and life changing artists with no particular regional or cultural bias.” They’ve definitely started in the right place. The sounds of the acoustic Ngoni’s, the intricate picking, the incredible percussive webs, the elongated jams just feel so organic so beautiful so pure and life affirming that it’s impossible not to be hypnotised. Tounami Diabate’s presence on two tracks doesn’t hurt either.
From Friday the 22nd – Sun 31st of Jan ACMI presents Yard! Dub and Reggae on Film, a series of hand picked new and classic films documenting not just the power and the breadth of the music, but also the poverty and social problems that spawned it. There’s the classics, like Rockers, a 1978 meditation on Rastafarian culture, and The Upsetter, a profile on legendary lunatic Lee Scratch Perry, though also some contemporary films like the incredible Rise Up and the harrowing Made in Jamaica that peel between the picture postcard facade and reveal a country steeped in violence, poverty and inequality. Check http://www.acmi.net.au – many of these have never graced the big screen (or sound system) in this country.
And if Tounami wasn’t enough to thank Sydney for, refugees are slowly filtering down from the Now Now festival, Australia’s premier improvised music festival. There’s a bunch of stuff on between Stutter (Horse Bazaar) and the Make It Up Club (Bar Open) over the next couple of weeks, featuring a mish mash of locals and internationals in curious combinations. Of particular note are the free jazz noise drums saxophone duo from Belgium Chaos of the Haunted Spire, and scary loud tenor saxophonist Kris Wanders and Mani Neumeier (Guru Guru) reuniting to resurrect a relationship that began in the mid sixties with their German group Globe Unity Orchestra. Check http://www.myspace.com/stuttermelb and http://www.myspace.com/makeitupclub for more details.