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-- Andrew Lindemann Malone
Malian kora player Toumani Diabate's show Saturday at Lisner Auditorium was often impressive -- just in a different way than expected. On his Symmetric Orchestra's acoustic-electric CD "Boulevard de L'Independence" last year, the harp-sounding instrument's tones were part of a funky, polyrhythmic wall of sound. But Diabate's touring version of the unit did not include a horn section or any of his many percussionists and vocalists. Harking back to his earlier efforts, Diabate chose to keep things mostly traditional, only offering intermittent, tantalizing examples of the CD's approach.
The evening, part of the pan-African ensemble's first American tour, started dramatically with just the balafon player onstage, pinging a syncopated pattern on his xylophone-like instrument. A djembe drummer joined him, followed by two vocalists, an ngoni (African lute) player, keyboardist, electric bassist, trap drummer, electric guitarist and finally Diabate.
The concert's eight lengthy songs, including many from earlier acoustic albums, were not pop in structure but instead included repeating modal rhythms, instrumental and vocal melodies and improvised solos. Although Diabate's guitarist, bassist and keyboard player were underused, the format highlighted the gorgeously unique timbres of West African acoustic instruments.
The orchestra's rendition of "Boulevard de L'Independence" was a standout, showcasing the group. Singer Soumaila Kanoute carried the number with his emotional griot cadences and harmonies with vocalist Mamadou Kouyate. Diabate and cousin Mamadou Diabate ended the night with a beautiful talking-koras duet.
-- Steve Kiviat