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Toumani and Sidiki

Mali is a massive, landlocked country in North West Africa covering an area of around 1.24 million square kilometres(480,000 square miles in old money). Covering such a wide area, the terrain ranges from desert to savannah and then on to cultivated land.With a population of around 14.5 million, as you can imagine,it is also not very crowded, Bamako, the capital, has about 1.8 million residents, but otherwise it is predominantly rural.

I must admit, I don't know a lot about the country although I am eager to learn. In 2012 there was an uprising in the north by Tuareg rebels, which was ultimately quelled by the Malian army, aided by the French for whom at one time Mali was a colony. Agriculture is the country's main economic activity, but with rich reserves of gold, kaolin and salt, mining is also important.

Mali first hit my consciousness when I went to see Andy Kershaw, former Radio 1 DJ, journalist and now Todmorden resident promoting his excellent book, 'No Off Switch' at the Picturedome in Holmfirth one evening last summer. In amongst anecdotes from his book, Andy played several eclectic tracks, one of which was from the late Malian guitarist, Ali Farka Toure. Fascinated by it's different sound, I got hold of his 'In the Heart of the Moon' album, a gentle relaxing instrumental album, which has become a firm favourite.

Listening to Andy, he extolled the values of African music in general, explaining the impact Zimbabwe's Bhundu Boys had on him and the late and legendary John Peel when they were introduced to their music.

12 months on, driving home, Cerys Matthews on Radio 2 played a track from Toumani Diabete and his son, Sidiki. Like Ali Farka Toure, they hail from Mali, but guitars, drums and keyboards, staples of Western music, are nowhere to be seen. It was one of those stop the car and listen moments. Toumani, a veteran of around 10 albums, has though worked with several Western musicians over the years, ranging from Ry Cooder to Damon Albarn.

Toumani and Sidaki both play the kora, a huge 21-string West African harp. The sound is reminiscent of a standard harp, but all those strings add an extra dimension and depth which puts their music on a different level. With the two of them, that's a whopping 42 strings to play around with.

The music they play is influenced by the fact that Mali has its own cultural elite, called griots, who dating back centuries when there were no books, passed on the history and music from generation to generation. Toumani and Sidiki are both griots, and the tunes featured are all traditional Malian tunes, but they have all been re-named to acknowledge people and places that have had a recent influence on the country.

It is lovely stuff, different to what we hear every day, but worth checking out and experiencing some wonderful music.

Album - Toumani Diabete & Sidiki Diabete - 'Toumani & Sidiki' World Circuit Records, 2014

Image courtesy of The Guardian

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