Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra

click to enlarge Strings attached: Toumani Diabat
Strings attached: Toumani Diabat

Entire genres of music have been founded upon the legacies of specific musicians, such as The Skatalites' Jamaican ska, or the Pogues' Irish shamble-punk. And there are musicians whose lives have become entwined manifestly with their instrument, such as Charlie Parker and his alto saxophone. But how many musical instruments have become all but entirely overshadowed by a single player in the contemporary world?

The kora, the 21-string upright-bass-like lute indigenous to parts of West Africa, has become somewhat synonymous with Malian musician Toumani Diabaté. In fact, his name is almost always followed by a variation on the phrase, "the world's greatest kora player."

In part, this reputation exists because Diabaté has taken a uniquely African instrument and, with it, drifted back and forth between Western and African concepts of music. Not only does he bridge the gap between American blues and jazz music and -- to borrow a phrase -- African rhythms and sensibility, he also purposefully (and perhaps shrewdly) brings the mystique and romance of his griot history everywhere he dips his toes. So whether he's recording with a fellow Malian legend, the late Ali Farka Toure, or with such ravenous world-music aficionados as Ry Cooder or Damon Albarn, Diabaté's performances incorporate his exoticism and eccentricity alongside the inspired technical brilliance that has earned him such unrivalled praise.

For his latest and arguably greatest effort -- Boulevard de l'Independance, by Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra -- the kora player has surrounded himself with more than 40 of his closest musical friends. It's a massive recreation of the large-scale jam sessions on which such African players cut their teeth.

Boulevard doesn't so much break down boundaries of musical style -- it irreversibly ignores them. Impressionistic guitar and kora runs punctuate Latin rhythms on "Africa Challenge" and "Mali Sadio." Huge sectional horn parts arranged by James Brown sideman Pee Wee Ellis swell alongside "highlife" bass lines and Fela Kuti-style big beats. It's the reigned-in-chaos of a mass of top-notch musicians swirling in and out of the spotlight. (Probably the album's best track, the five-minute closing salvo, "Single," incorporates all of these elements and more.)

Throughout, Boulevard illustrates Diabaté's vision that a big band can provide not just a big sound, but a balance to modern life: a "symmetry" grounded in its own cultural history, and made stronger by that of its contemporaries.

Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra. 8 p.m. Tue., March 27. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. $15. 412-237-8300 or

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