Toumani Diabaté is a Malian kora player (a harp with 21 strings unique to West Africa). In addition to performing the traditional music of Mali, he has also been involved in cross-cultural collaborations with flamenco, blues, jazz, and other international styles.
Toumani was born in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in 1965 into a family of griots (hereditary musician/historian caste) whose lineage stretches back 71 generations, father to son. His father Sidiki Diabaté was a kora player of legendary fame in West Africa - dubbed King of the Kora. His cousin Sona Jobarteh is the first female kora player to come from a Griot family. His younger brother Mamadou Sidiki Diabaté is also a prominent kora player.
Despite the musical environment in which Toumani was raised, he was self-taught, never learning directly from his father except by listening. He began playing the kora at the age of five at a time when the Malian Government was engaged in an active programme of encouraging regional ensembles to represent local traditions. Toumani was recruited to the ensemble from Koulikoro with whom he made his public debut at the age of 13 to great local acclaim. In 1984 Toumani joined the group of brilliant young musicians who accompanied the great diva Kandia Kouyate.
In 1987, Diabate made his first appearance on an album in the UK, on Ba Togoma, an album featuring his father’s ensemble. In 1988 Diabaté released his first album in the West, a solo album entitled Kaira, recorded in one afternoon in London and produced by Lucy Durán.
In addition to performing Malian traditional music, Diabaté has also performed and recorded in cross-cultural settings. He has collaborated with flamenco group Ketama, forming a combined group known as Songhai and releasing two recordings: Songhai I and Songhai II. In 1999, Diabaté collaborated with American blues musician Taj Mahal on the release Kulanjan. “MALIcool” is a collaboration with American jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd. He also collaborated with the Icelandic popular musician Björk on her 2007 album Volta.
In 1999 Diabaté released the album New Ancient Strings, a collaboration with Ballaké Sissoko and in September 2005, he released In the Heart of the Moon, for which he collaborated with Ali Farka Touré. The album went on to win the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album. On July 25, 2006 he released his latest album Boulevard de l’Indépendance, recorded with his Symmetric Orchestra. In the Heart of the Moon and Boulevard de l’Indépendance, are both part of the Hotel Mandé Sessions, recorded by Nick Gold and released on World Circuit Records. Both Boulevard and Hotel Mandé are references to landmarks in Mali’s capital city, Bamako.
The Symmetric Orchestra led by Toumani Diabaté is composed of musicians (mostly griots) from the across the old Mande Empire of west Africa, who play a mix of traditional instruments including the kora, djembe, balafon and bolombatto, as well as modern ones like the guitar and electronic keyboard.
Diabaté appeared in 2006 at the WOMAD Festival UK, Roskilde Festival in Denmark, and at the Sziget Festival in Budapest, Hungary. In 2007 he performed at the Glastonbury Festival and toured the U.S.A.. In 2008, he was at WOMADelaide (in Adelaide, Australia).
In early 2008, Diabaté released his new album of solo Kora music, The Mandé Variations, to widespread critical acclaim. Many reviewers praised the album for its detailed recording of the Kora and careful mastering, in addition to the improvisational skills and wide range of apparent influences displayed on the album.