COLLABORATIONS between improvising musicians and orchestras sometimes reveal nothing but a culture clash. The performances can sound disjointed and fragmented, the musical equivalent of cut and paste.
But when Toumani Diabate, the kora maestro, and his band of eminent Malian musicians shared the Barbican stage with the London Symphony Orchestra back in 2008, the connection exposed only the glorious possibilities of bringing traditions together.
A few lucky people attended the short run of concerts that the Diabate and the LSO performed way back when; but for the rest of us the magical music they produced together has become a distant rumour. That is until now with the release of Korolen via World Circuit on April 23rd, the recording of that almost mythical Barbican concert.
With Ian Gardiner and Nico Muhly’s orchestral arrangements supporting Diabate’s compositions, the ambition was, as Muhly put it, ‘to create a subtle architecture’ in which the orchestra made space for the Toumani’s band to flourish. On that pledge Korolen certainly delivers.
The album begins with concert’s sumptuous opener “Hainamady Town”. Fittingly, as the performance marked the first time that a kora had been used as a solo instrument with a symphony orchestra, the cut is introduced by Diabate playing solo, coaxing that tumbling beauty from his instrument strings while he slides closer to its chiming melody. As the orchestra gently eases into the soundscape, carefully building around the tune, Diabate lets the main theme fly with his masterful improvisational flare pulling restlessly at the emotions as he goes. It’s music with a widescreen cinematic feel without the cliché.
It’s that capability to conjure a range of atmospheres across the six tracks that gives Korolen sparkle and status as a release. “Mama Souraka” skips in with a buoyant introduction from Toumani, all dazzling trills and thrills, laying the foundations for the whole ensemble to join in with this joyous, bobbing sway. Strings nimbly shift between rhythmic support and swelling the melody lines, snippets of flute and woodwind get playful and at the centre the kora converses with Lassana Diabate’s sonorous balafon. The tune has a lightness of touch and spring it its step, reminiscent of Penguin Café in their prime.
“Elyne Road” brings more hustle and bustle like an unfolding street scene, built on a simple, heart-tugging melody that ebbs and flows with the accentuations of the arrangement. “Cantelowes Dream” is more contemplative as an almost pastoral introduction unfolds into a swaying slow samba sprinkled with Mady Kouyate’s guitar. The closing dialogue between kora and woodwind over a pausing orchestra is a moment of breathtaking delicacy, sustaining the mystery to its sudden end.
There are other tingling moments of thoughtful interplay on Korolen, when the instruments are carefully feeling for each other, but frequently the surge of Toumani’s kora, with its unrestrained musicality, lifts the gathering. This uplift reaches some kind of heady peak during “Moon Kaira”, on which the orchestra confidently takes the lead mapping out the melodic patterns and grounding pulse. As the balafon and kora chatter and a momentary still sets in, you sense that sonic wave coming over the horizon. Then suddenly it’s there – boom – a moment of pure drop on a neo-classical world fusion recording … absolutely brilliant.
All too soon you get to the record’s closer, “Mamadou Kanda Keita”, with its lush layers of sweeping sound and defiant beauty. The track is a final confirmation of the subtle complexity of the arrangements and empathic response that conductor Clark Rundell draws from the LSO. Crowned by the deep resonance of Kasse Made Diabate’s classic Malian vocal, the finale emphasises the unity and harmony flowing through the whole ensemble.
Toumani Diabate wanted the collaboration with a full orchestra to remind us that ‘there’s a mystic and classical side to African music, a divinity’. Korolen emphatically makes that point but it is so much more than a reminder or a memento of a seminal event. The album has an enduring quality and musical significance which, like Diabate’s classic, Mande Variations, suggests it’s destined to become a staple on any audiophile’s shelving.