I’ve mentioned previously that Sunday mornings are my precious alone time when I reflect and rejuvenate to give me the strength I need to face the grunge of the workweek. The soundtrack for my Sunday morning ritual is designed to be soothing, consisting largely of classical guitar pieces by Segovia, Sharon Isbin and Christopher Parkening, and Celtic harp performed by a variety of artists but heavy on works composed by Turlough O’Carolan. When I lived in the States, the crossword in the New York Times Sunday Magazine was part of that ritual; when I moved to France, I switched to mots croisés and mots fléchés. The problem I faced with French crosswords is that I am relatively uneducated (and uninterested) in French history, making them more of a chore than a challenge. The solution to wasting Sunday mornings with Talleyrand, Léon Blum and obscure figures from the Second Republic was to reassign mots croisés to air travel and use that quiet time for French newspapers and the sounds of plucked, struck and strummed strings.
A couple of years ago, I integrated In the Heart of the Moon into the rotation, with wondrous results. About thirty seconds into the first song I lose all interest in the latest strikes, parliamentary debates or whatever else the French are bitching about, toss the paper on the floor, close my eyes and immerse myself in the magical music. In the Heart of the Moon is simply one of the most beautiful recordings I’ve ever heard.
Many Westerners know the late guitarist Ali Farka Touré from his marvelous blues-roots albums and the collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu. Toumani Diabaté is somewhat less familiar but is recognized as one of the greatest living players of the kora, an instrument that defies many Western paradigms related to string instruments.
I am fascinated by the ingenuity human beings have applied to the creation of musical instruments, but if you’re not, feel free to skip this section to get to the review.
From a distance, the kora resembles a sitar, but the kora’s twenty-one strings (usually nylon) are divided into two opposing sets (eleven on the left side and ten on the right) that gradually rise above the neck the further down they go, like delicate twin cable suspension bridges. The distance between string and neck is significant enough to make it impractical to change notes by pressing the strings onto the neck as you do with a guitar, and like the violin family, the neck is fretless. The notes, percussive sounds and chords result from the player using the thumb and index finger on both hands while the other three fingers on each hand rest on supporting posts. The kora does have tuning pegs, an innovation of the early 60’s that caused a great deal of controversy in the kora-playing universe. Even with the tuning pegs, the nature of the instrument is such that the player is restricted to four scales that come close to syncing with our major and minor scales as well as the Lydian scale that often pops up in modern jazz. That’s assuming you can tune the instrument—word has it that the tuning of a kora is as close to the Sisyphus myth as a musician can get, and many a wannabe kora player has responded to the effort by just saying, “Fuck it.” The base of the kora consists of a large calabash sliced in half and wrapped in cow skin, through which those resting posts travel to provide stable footing. There is a soundhole, but unlike a guitar, the soundhole is located on the side instead of the front. The sound is somewhere between a lute and a harp, but brighter. Modern kora players have access to electric versions of the instrument, which allows for the possibility of pedals and other gizmos to further shape the sound.
I don’t know why anyone would do that, because the kora is perfectly beautiful in its natural state. As I researched the kora for this piece, I watched videos of Diabaté a hundred times and couldn’t for the life of me figure out how he created such wonderful sounds. This is because playing the kora is a three-dimensional experience, and the standard front-and-center camera angle prevented me from seeing what his fingers were doing behind the scenes. Fortunately, I found an unusually engaging scholarly article on the kora authored by one William Ridenour who helped shed some light on kora technique:
There are two main ways to play pieces on the kora, and these are described as kumbengo and birimitingo. Kumbengo is best described as a basic pattern or an accompaniment pattern. Kumbengo is the foundation of a piece, and one cycle of kumbengo is repeated over and over, usually with variation. Sometimes a kumbengo is developed from the vocal melody of the piece (Knight).
“Accompaniment-type playing involves an ensemble relationship between the fingers or hands of one or more musicians in which African aesthetics of polyrhythm find full expression” (Charry 167). Kumbengo patterns are often disrupted by another way of playing, involving fast descending melodic flourishes which are often highly ornamented. This type of playing is called birimitingo, a word possibly of onomatopoeic origins. When pieces are performed, the player alternates between the two styles at his or her will, depending on the demands of the particular situation.
Occasionally the kumbengo is punctuated by a knock on the hand support by the right index finger in a technique called bulukondingo podi. Another type of knock, konkong (Charry calls it “konkondiro”), is more common; it is a timekeeping pattern tapped on the round side of the kora by an apprentice or a male singer (Knight).
Techniques and Roles of the Playing Fingers
Generally, the left thumb plays strings 1-8 on the left side, and the left index finger plays strings 6-11. On the right side, the thumb plays strings 1-5, and the right index finger plays strings 2-10. There is quite a bit of crossover between thumbs and fingers on the same side, especially with the technique of birimitingo. In addition, there are two predominant ways to pluck a string: open and muted. To create a kumbengo, the thumbs play a bass line, while the fingers play a treble melody; the instrument is intrinsically polyphonic. The pitches ascend in 3rds on both sides of the bridge, facilitating the playing of two- to four-note chords, rapid scalar passages (fingers or thumbs in alternation) and octave doubling (Knight and Charry 158).
Translation: If you want to become a great kora player, prepare to devote your entire life to practice. As it turns out, that’s pretty much how kora players have been developed for centuries due to the caste systems common in many locales on the African continent (the Mandé caste, in this instance). According to Wikipedia, Diabaté comes from a long line of “70 generations of musicians preceding him in a patrilineal line.” Even if you only credit a generation with thirty years of existence, that translates into 2100 years of male-only kora playing. The generational sexism was broken recently by one of his cousins, Sona Jobarteh, whose album Fasiya integrated the kora with pop sensibilities.
The twelve songs on In the Heart of the Moon are marked by incredibly simple chord patterns consisting of one, two or three common chords. Over half the songs are in the key of F major, a key frequently used in kora music; only one song is in a minor key, D minor, which happens to be the complement to F major. Touré generally provides the baseline accompaniment through a simple, repetitive arpeggio, graciously giving his younger friend plenty of room to maneuver (though he does insert some sweet licks from time to time). The variety in the music comes largely from the kora, especially during those birimitingo passages where the flurry of notes sounds like the aural equivalent of shooting stars on a clear summer night.
The songs and playing styles come from a period in Malian musical history called Jamana Kura, or “New Age/Era.” Jamana Kura emerged in Mali’s pre-independence period, a style marked by “a lighter more popular feel than the old Mandé griot classics” (according to the liner notes). To my ears, the song structures are reminiscent of the folk music of Britain and France, simple but highly melodic compositions that support folk dance. Jamana Kura also introduced a new, highly rhythmic finger-picking guitar style that arose from a merger of other stylistic traditions; Touré takes this a step further with his grounding in the blues, further intensifying the rhythmic patterns. The result is true world music, a style simpatico with Western and African sensibilities.
Translation: you won’t hear anything on In the Heart of the Moon that feels too “foreign” to you.
The album was recorded in a hotel conference room in Bamako without rehearsals in three days, and given the fact that these two giants of African music had only played together briefly prior to what Touré called “A very important meeting in the realm at the heart of the moon,” it’s only natural that the festivities begin with a warm-up song in the key of F major, “Debe.” The song’s origins are ancient, dating back to the 17th Century, and the music is almost childlike in its simplicity and ability to delight the listener. Touré begins the piece with a nimble run echoing the melodic structure before dropping into a simple arpeggio that forms the dominant theme. You hear Diabaté enter about twenty seconds into the song, and soon he teases us with a short sample of birimitingo that makes you tingle with delight.
Don’t worry, folks, the kid is just warming up.
About halfway through the song, Diabaté gives us a longer sample of the birimitingo technique, and what I find simply amazing is how tightly he controls the length of each note to ensure that it doesn’t get in the way of the next one—hundreds of notes, each clean, clear and absolutely beautiful. You hear Touré say something to Diabaté after this stunning rush, and though I’m not sure which of the seven Malian languages Touré had mastered is in play here, the liner notes tell us “Ali praised Toumani as the rightful heir to the Mandé tradition.” The genuine respect and affection shared by these two brilliant musicians is on full display in the live version of “Debe,” where you can also see the kora in action:
“Kala” opens up with another Touré blitz that sounds very reminiscent of the intro to “Debe” until he forces the rhythm into a detour and winds up playing a rather jaunty, joyful pattern based on an F-C major chord structure. Diabaté’s approach is more varied here, introducing bright, complementary chording in addition to the bursts of birimitingo. Towards the end of the song, Diabaté repeats a chord that is slightly out of scale but marvelously harmonic, adding a slight bit of tension to the mix. This is another song guaranteed to bring a smile to your face—a playful, hummable, childlike delight.
Ry Cooder joins the party on “Mamadou Boutiquier,” an ode to Mandé traders who helped spread the Mandé language and Islamic traditions across West Africa. Toure’s introduction here is somewhat clipped, leading to a more integrated duet. Cooder is listed as playing “Kawai piano,” but the sounds you hear are distant hints of breathy organ, indicating the presence of an electronic keyboard. Once again, the song is built around an F-C major combination with a bit more flair in the rhythm due to the 6/8 time signature. The waltz-like beat adds a certain formality to the music, reminding you more of Vienna than Timbuktu.
Next up is “Monsieur le Maire de Niafunké,” a song celebrating Ali Farka Touré’s ascension to Mayor of the town of Niafunké, a small village on the Niger where he lived during his infancy. Unlike a certain U. S. President who shall remain nameless, Touré did not use his brief time in power to enrich himself but to improve the roads, build a sewer system and install an electric generator—all on his own dime. Imagine that! Diabaté opens this song with a light, nimble arpeggio to set a celebratory mood; Touré steps in to fill the humble supporting role and free Diabaté to do his thing. This is Diabaté’s most diverse performance on the record, combining varied phrasing on the rhythmic pattern with joyful injections of melodic birimitingo and the occasional chord. The fade to the song can only be described as sweet, a gradual diminuendo that communicates tender respect before Diabaté graciously hands off the lead role to Touré for the short closing pattern.
We finally see a key change (to D-A major) with “Kaira” (peace), a song popularized in the 40s and 50s by Diabaté’s father (also a kora player, as dictated by tradition). Touré handles the rhythm, adding a syncopated kick to liven things up a bit, and although percussion was present on the two previous tracks, the shaker is much more noticeable here, giving the piece a touch of samba. The jaw-dropping moment comes at the halfway point when Diabaté goes on an extended birimitingo at breakneck speed, then returns a few seconds later as if nothing particularly remarkable had happened. One feature of In the Heart of the Moon that I hope people appreciate is the utter humility of the musicians—this isn’t the “ego-based music” George Harrison identified as the major irritant in modern music (a view to which I fully subscribe), but two men putting their egos aside in the service of creation.
“Simbo” returns to the F-C pattern, enhanced with breaks where two and three-note chords are played in a varied, syncopated pattern. Another strong duet with amazing kora-guitar harmonies, Diabaté varies his solos with unexpected pauses, sequential triplets and even long periods of silence to allow Touré to reaffirm the beat. The note patterns have a slightly Mexican feel to my ears, but I’d have to compare scores to understand why—and kora music is notoriously difficult to score. For the most part, I’m quite content to let music theory go to hell for a while and just let this exquisite music course through my soul.
The greatest departure from the baseline comes with “Ai Ga Bani,’ (I Love You), the only vocal piece on the album. Here we shift to a three-chord pattern in D minor that marks a surprising but welcome shift in the mood from inspirational to erotic. Touré opens with high-note runs similar to the first two songs on the album, then descends at the point where the minor key is established. He punctuates that change with a strong WHACK on the strings, communicating sexual tension near the boiling point. I’ll state the obvious and tell you this is by far the sexiest piece on the album, with the erotic feel intensified by the passionate sincerity Touré brings to his vocal. Ry Cooder again adds the breathy sounds while Diabaté and Touré provide contrasting fills—Diabaté’s full of mystery, Touré’s loaded with blues-inspired earthiness.
You may have figured out that the Jamana Kura had little to do with colonial resistance or the politics of the independence movement. Many of the songs from the period were devoted to expressions of love, and though the performances here are wordless, you can feel the tenderness and joy in the music. “Soumbo Ya Ya” is one such song, featuring a melodic line that rises and falls with the peaks and valleys of human emotion. Touré provides the dominant line while Diabaté dazzles us with intensely beautiful flurries that sound positively magical. It’s followed by the more reflective but sweetly passionate arrangement of “Naweye Toro,” a song that differentiates itself from the others with the brief appearance of a C7 chord in the middle of the F-C major pattern to add a spot of tension before arriving at the affirming resolution. I love Touré’s guitar on this piece—calming and earthy, reminiscent of gentle bluegrass music.
The last three songs are all traditional songs arranged by Touré, beginning with the sprightly “Kadi Kadi,” a cascade of intense, active runs that fill the soundscape like exploding blossoms. Diabaté is on fire here, responding to the quick tempo with confidence and remarkable dexterity. You definitely hear the country blues influence in Toure’s picking on “Gomni,” a song that feels more Texas than Mali. Touré’s playing is fluid, insistent and powerfully rhythmic, an open invitation to musicians and listeners to let the world go to hell and just fall in love with the music (the brief applause at the end of the song is pleasingly affirming). In the Heart of the Moon ends with “Hawa Dolo,” a meditation using an F-Bb-C pattern that employs the kind of slow arpeggios you hear on pop songs of the early 60s like “Angel Baby” and “The End of the World.” Ry Cooder makes an appearance with a Ripley stereo guitar, producing sounds that form a deep background, making the acoustic guitar and kora sound even brighter. The feel of the song is rather sad, but tenderly so, expressing the ever-present regret that “all good things must end.”
The music on In the Heart of the Moon is intensely captivating, an alluring invitation to the listener to explore and learn more about Malian music and culture. Bamako is definitely on my list of future vacation itineraries, but right now the country is going through yet another period of instability and it simply isn’t safe for a white French woman to visit. Despite the capability of music to transcend cultural differences and build bridges between people, political considerations always seem to get in the way.
My urge to visit Mali coincides with a parallel wish—the wish that I had been there when they made In the Heart of the Moon. I’ll let producer Nick Gold explain why (from the liner notes):
. . . at two o’clock the next day Ali and Toumani were sitting opposite each other, close together, instruments were tuned, microphones were placed, sound levels were set and off they went.
Each of them would suggest or remind the other of a song by playing the first few notes of the melody and that was basically it. Beyond the basic song structures, it was completely improvised. If one of them wanted to take a solo, he’d nod to the other. At times it seemed like they were just sitting on a groove (albeit a wonderful groove). Then one of them would start damping a string, the other would follow suit, and you had this very detailed interaction that I didn’t fully appreciate until we got to the mixing stage. Every single note that both of them played was absolutely meant. For three days every afternoon they played for an hour or two. These sessions were very relaxed, but the concentration between the two of them was intense . . . There were no second takes. Nothing was edited . . . They hardly spoke during the sessions. They didn’t need to. Sometimes I had the thrilling experience of eavesdropping on a moment of very special and intimate communication. Listening to this record, you’d think they’d played together all their lives, yet they’d played for a total of three hours before this—spread over fifteen years.
I’d be so completely absorbed by the music. We needed absolute quiet in the room while they were recording since the kora is such a very quiet instrument. A song would end and you’d realize you’d been holding your breath, hypnotized. It was terrible when those sessions ended. I wish I could have afternoons like that every day of my life, with the most sublime music just going on—forever.