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Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté to share the ancient sounds of his homeland at Norwich Theatre Royal

PUBLISHED: 10:27 20 May 2014 | UPDATED: 10:27 20 May 2014

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabate.

© Youri Lenquette

Critically-acclaimed Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté will share the ancient sounds of his homeland at Norwich Theatre Royal on May 22, when he performs as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Judy Foster finds out more.

Born into a legendary musical dynasty in one of West Africa’s most troubled countries of recent years, Toumani is a modern-day griot – a hereditary caste of musical storytellers, historians and genealogists who, in the absence of books and writers, have been the keepers of Mali’s rich cultural history with a griot repertoire of thousands of songs passed down through many years.

As the 70th generation of his family to inherit this ‘calling,’ Toumani felt he was born to play the 21-string West African kora harp, fashioned from a cow-skin covered gourd, and he first picked up the instrument at the tender age of five.

Now in his late 40s, he is widely recognised as the greatest living kora player taking his music to new levels on the world music stage, both technically and musically, bringing the old together with the new.

He has many kora albums to his name and a reputation as an ambassador for his people, having played at prestigious venues around the world to bring the distinctive sounds of West Africa to a wider audience.

Constantly looking to evolve and innovate the music, Toumani has collaborated with artists as diverse as Björk (who he performed with during her appearance at Glastonbury), American jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd and Grammy Award-winning blues musician Taj Mahal - and he numbers Damon Albarn among his many fans. The Blur frontman, who he worked with on the Mali Music project, said: “I’ve played with him many times, and it’s never short of remarkable.”

The musical genes are strong in the Diabaté family. Toumani’s father was Sidiki Diabaté, a legendary musician dubbed King of the Kora who was largely responsible for it becoming seen as the iconic instrument of African music. Now his own son, also named Sidiki in honour of his grandfather, plays at his side and will share the Theatre Royal stage with him.

The duo have just released a father-and-son collaborative album – called ‘Toumani and Sidiki’.

Indeed, 23-year-old Sidiki is renowned as an accomplished musician in his own right with his own distinctive style and a huge following among Malian youngsters as part of a hip-hop partnership with rapper Iba One.

Sidiki is also a griot and, like his father, wants to take the kora to new places. His father has said of him: “I didn’t make the LP with my son because he’s my son, but because he’s a great and talented musician and I wanted him to have a chance.”

The duo will be joined for the first half of their Norwich concert by virtuoso cellist Philip Sheppard who will play a special short set to counterpoint their kora duets.

A pioneer of the electric cello, he has composed extensively for film, television and theatre – writing and producing the music for the handover ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

• Toumani Diabaté, supported by cellist Philip Sheppard, is at Norwich Theatre Royal, at 8pm on May 22. Tickets £6.50-£25. For more information and to book tickets call 01603 630000 or visit

• For more NNF Festival Focus features click here.

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