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Day 40: Bamako

Michael Palin - SaharaToumani is, I would guess, around forty. He wears a wide white robe, like a Pierrot at the circus, and walks awkwardly, the result of childhood polio. But he's co-operation personified, happy to climb to the top of his three-storey house, where the light is better for our filming, to give me a masterclass in the kora and an insider's view of the problems and pleasures of living in Mali.

He talks softly and seriously. I learn about the griots, the poets and musicians of which he is one, who can trace themselves back to the Malian Empire of the thirteenth century, when they were employed to sing the praises of their leaders and in turn became the keepers of the oral tradition. Which is how he learnt to play the kora, a Mandinke instrument played in Guinea and Benin before being introduced to Mali.

'I come from seventy-one generations of kora players,' he says matter-of-factly.

The kora has twenty-one strings and a long neck rising from a cowhide-covered base.

'Is it made by your family?'

'Of course. This is my family history. It's not like a piano or a guitar that we have to go to the shop to buy.'

Toumani's father, Sidiki Diabate, was, he says, king of the kora, but his son took it in a very different direction.

'I was listening to James Brown's music, to Otis Redding's, to Jimi Hendrix, to Salif Keita (the most famous of all Malian musicians), to jazz from Guinea. And I said, I have to open a new door for the kora. Everybody can join the kora music now, not only listen to it, but to come and play with the kora.'

And they have. Toumani mentions Peter Gabriel, Taj Mahal and the Spanish flamenco group Ketama amongst those he has worked with.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 40
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Bamako
  • Book page no: 124

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