On Record: Toumani Diabaté & London Symphony Orchestra: Kôrôlén (World Circuit)


reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is the second cross-genre collaboration for the London Symphony Orchestra to be released in as many months, following on from their successful work with Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders, already getting plaudits as an album of the year contender. However this issue of a concert with Malian Toumani Diabaté and his ensemble dates from 2008, another of the kora player’s efforts to bring African music to new audiences.

With arrangements from Nico Muhly and Ian Gardiner, the 21-string kora is set alongside contributions from other Malian musicians and the fulsome presence of the London Symphony Orchestra, bringing forward music that, as Diabaté says, has a tradition stretching back beyond the music of Bach. Ultimately his vision is that we ‘look at African music in a new way’.

What’s the music like?

Rather wonderful. The early exchanges of Haïnamady Town establish the sound world of the kora and orchestra, with an opening solo from Diabaté showing off his fluid and sensitive playing. The serene strings provide colour around the edges, dressing the material rather than dominating it, but as the suite progresses the orchestra takes a more prominent role.


Balafonist Lassana Diabaté comes to the fore for Mama Souraka, a response to the kora that brings fresh, outdoor energy to the music. Attractive woodwind colours are the feature of Elyne Road, which segue to an attractive round that develops. Cantelowes Dream is a longer sequence, where Diabaté takes longer phrases, spinning them above held strings and gently undulating balafon. The music pauses in the middle, giving room for dialogue with the flute.

Moon Kaira has extra propulsion with a recurring bass motif and solos from kora and marimba, and is ultimately taken over by joyful string motifs. Mamadou Kanda Keita provides a fitting climax, beautifully sung by Kasse Mady Diabaté in the first vocal of the album, rapturously received by the Barbican audience.

Does it all work?

In every way. Many collaborations between electronics, jazz and / or symphony orchestra miss the mark because of balance issues, with everything turned up too loud or with too many notes given to too many instruments, or because one or more of the musical parties are not on the same wavelength. This makes Promises all the more remarkable, for even the LSO strings, adding their contribution a year hence, are fully in the moment.

The ‘less is more’ approach of this collaboration pays off in every way. Sure, the music is slow moving, but that is an essential part of its appeal, a meditation for large forces securing the most intimate of responses.

Is it recommended?

Yes, provided the piece is experienced as one. Gardiner and Muhly’s arrangements are nicely weighted, giving the right amount of balance with the African instruments and only occasionally threatening their clarity. The brightness of the wind instruments and softness of the strings complements the studied, picked timbres of the kora. Conductor Clark Rundell gives the music all the room it needs, lending the exchanges an instinctive, almost improvised quality.



You can find out more about the release and purchase from the World Circuit website