In art, sometimes it takes one person to break through and open the doors for others. That is exactly what Mali’s Toumani Diabate did, releasing the first kora album to hit the United States, and now his cousin, Mamadou Diabate, is using that path and the 21-stringed West African harp-lute to establish his own roads into world music.
In Tunga (“Adventure”), on Durham’s Alula Records, the younger jeli or griot, spans eight centuries. “Djanjo,” a praise song, dates back to the 13th century, while “Mamadou Diawara,” takes its inspiration from a Manding classic of the 1920s.
While Diabate has one foot in the past with Tunga, he’s got the other one firmly planted in the here and now. The second track, “Dounya,” experiments with the blues. Together with a balafon (a xylophone made of wood and gourds), an electric bass and rich vocals by Abdoulaye Diabate, Mamadou’s kora-playing contributes to a multilayered arrangement that builds suspensefully and subsides time and time again. In “Djelimory,” acoustic bass provides a modern counternote to the kora.
One of the best things about the album is that Diabate doesn’t overplay or drown out his accompanists, and the vocalists (who appear on only two of the nine selections) belt out lyrics without overpowering the often delicate sounds of the kora. Tunga‘s instrumentalists, who also play djembe drums and the ngoni lute, shine during complex riffs.
Especially recommended are Tunga‘s faster cuts, like “Dagna” and “Larsidan,” though it’s difficult to label many of the songs either fast or slow. Tunga certainly is an adventure for listeners; its tracks take sudden, unexpected turns. While these detours initially seem jarring, the changes of pace are not clumsy, and by the end of Tunga, they reveal themselves as moments of planned whimsy.