A solo kora recital (his second, a follow-up to his 1988 debut recording Kaira) for Bamako's Toumani Diabaté seems like a snap, easily produced, and simply rendered. But the thought process prior to and during each piece speaks more on the background, orientation and experience that inspires him. Not all strictly a Mali or African dialect, he employs a variety of sources that directs this diverse program, which is far from simplistic or superficial. For instance, the beauteous ten and a half minute opener "Si Naani" uses an Egyptian tuning, is harp and Zen-like, cascading, expresses four Fula lineages, and goes from a love song to a griot tale. The thematic waltz "Elyne Road" -- inspired by producer Nick Gold's band UB40's version of the song "Kingston Town" -- uses a repeat line to improvise off of, much more than a simple pop or rock song form. "Ali Farka Toure" for the deceased world music master is a fast, no-frills improvisation with no wasted space as the musician who it is played for fully expressed in his music. "Kaounding Cissoko" for Baaba Maal's late kora accompanist is playful, minimalist, layered, sounds overdubbed even though it is not, and is the most intricate piece on the CD. An Arabic spoken word prayer introduces the reverent "Ismael Dreams," a slow "Djourou Kara Nany" (the Arabic name for Macedonian emperor Alexander the Great) is also measured but uses contrasting quick passages, and "El Nabiyouma" is playful and bouncy, utilizing rhythmic Spanish flamenco inferences, as well as those from carnatic India and Mauritania. Then there's "Cantelowes," inspired by a street in north London and borrowing the famous melody from the film The Good, The Bad & The Ugly as a vehicle for counterpoint linear and repeat direct basslines. As much as the relaxed fluidity and natural ability of Diabaté is clear, please do not assume this music is laid-back, lacks spark, verve or energy. An inspired, sparkling effort, The Mande Variations ranks as a top shelf, eminently listenable recording on many levels, and comes highly recommended.
AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos