Mande Variations (Toumani Diabate)
No one has done more to raise the profile of the kora in the West than Mali's Toumani Diabaté. Through a series of high-profile collaborations (with Taj Mahal, Youssou Ndour, and Björk, among others), Diabaté has remade the repertoire of the 21-string West African axe and uncovered a wealth of sonic possibilities. Lately he's explored big-band settings with his Symmetric Orchestra, but The Mandé Variations does an about-face. Eight solo pieces put the focus squarely on Diabaté's virtuosity, and a number of them would seem fair game for an adventurous classical music program. While the pieces' titles, each referencing a hero or a significant place in Diabaté's life, suggest the traditional practice of praise songs, these works are liberated in a large part from the kora's ceremonial repertoire. Sometimes the dazzling attack is reminiscent of minimalism; at other moments the arid strains of Middle Eastern improvisation are more prevalent. The closing track cheekily references The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. You'll find plenty of the former -- alongside startling glissandos recorded with impeccable fidelity -- and absolutely none of the latter two qualities on this gorgeous disc.
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