It’s not that easy within a few hundred words to describe, for anyone uninitiated, who Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté are, and why they lifted the roof clean off the NCH.
A Malian father and son duo who play the kora, a traditional West African harp-lute, which has 21 strings and which Toumani described, to amusement from the crowd, as “very easy to play – one hand for the bass and one for the melody and improvisation”. This was like Martin Hayes saying of the fiddle “one hand for the bow and one for the strings” or John Coltrane saying of the saxophone “it’s easy to play – you just stick it in your gob”.
Toumani is the Martin Hayes of the kora to Sidiki’s Jimi Hendrix: the father capable of anything but by default that bit more meditative and textural; the son, only 24, youthfully fond of blistering, liberating solo runs. Together, they play with an obvious understanding, a shimmering fluency and grace and an almost heartbreaking joy in sheer creation. Seeing them live, you get lost in the sound they make and you do not want the music to stop when it starts.
The pair can trace back their ancestry through 72 generations of Malian griots, or musician-poets, and in a profile by Lucy Duran, Toumani Diabaté – The kora: tales of a frontier instrument, there is a story of the foundations of the Diabaté dynasty that captures who they are and what they do. The origin story goes that in the 13th century two brothers were out hunting and one saved the other from attack from a wild animal. Duran writes: “The elder brother, in gratitude, sang out his praises. The younger brother replied, ‘if you become a praise singer, no one will be able to refuse you’ – and that is the meaning of the name Diabaté.”
Through their koras, the Diabatés are praise singers, in a highly literal and a broader sense. Literal, because many of Toumani’s tunes, including some from the self-explanatory new album Toumani and Sidiki that they play tonight, are tributes to people named in the titles. (‘Dr Cheikh Modibo Diarra’ and the exultant ‘Rachid Ouguini’ were met by rapturous roars.) More broadly, because the act of creating and sharing music so full-hearted is an act of giving and an act of thanks and praise, to whomever one might think praise is due. It is a clear and simple statement of something not often enough said: it is a glorious thing to be alive.
Even the laments, such as ‘Lampedusa’, with which they close the show, are hopeful in their own way. Toumani speaks about the song at length; how he was inspired to write it last October by the loss at sea of a boat full of 360 people trying to make their way to Italy from Africa. He talks about the awful sickening tragedy of this, about the failures of understanding and empathy that let such things continue to happen and to be ignored, and about the hope, real in his mind, that humans might some day stop treating other humans as if they don’t matter. “Close your eyes and dream with this song,” he says, and, for a few minutes, bathed in the music, that’s what we allowed ourselves to do.