Djeli Moussa Diawara

Pushing Back The Boundaries of The Kora


17/05/2000 - 

On his new album, Ocean Blues - From Africa to Hawaii, Guinean kora-player Djeli Moussa Diawara branches out in an unexpected direction, fusing the sound of the kora with the dobro and Hawaiian guitar played by his friend and musical accomplice, Bob Brozman. Setting out to reinvent the blues, the pair take listeners on a magical journey from the desert to Madagascar, their music opening up glorious vistas of wide horizons and limpid blue skies.

Djeli Moussa Diawara and American guitarist Bob Brozman met for the first time at a music festival in Réunion in 1999. Djeli was accompanying Janice De Rosa (a singer born in Manhattan who has now relocated to Paris) with whom he had already recorded the acclaimed blues album, Afro Blues (WEA). Brozman happened to be in the audience that night and was bowled over by the crystal notes of Djeli's kora which fell like gentle rain on De Rosa's dusky, twilight vocals. And the admiration soon proved to be mutual, for when Djeli heard Brozman on guitar later that night he fell instantly under his spell.

When Brozman invited Djeli to perform with him at a festival in Montreal, the kora virtuoso accepted without a moment's hesitation. And his instinct proved to be right - "There was an instant vibe between Bob and I the minute we started playing together," Djeli recalls. In fact, the Guinean/American double act worked out so well that the pair decided to team up and record their new album together in Bob's home state, California. Some musicians might have balked at the idea of taking the kora to distant climes and playing music for which the instrument was never designed - but not Djeli Moussa Diawara!

Not a musician to get bogged down in fossilised tradition, Djeli has followed the example of fellow kora virtuosos, Toumani Diabaté and Soriba Kouyaté, and devoted his career to broadening the instrument's musical horizons. In the course of his solo albums - Cimadan, Sobindo and Flamenkora - and his collaborations with other musicians, Djeli has sought to push back the kora's musical boundaries. "I was interested in opening the kora up to different scales," Djeli explains, "That's how I came up with the idea of adding keys and extra strings to one of the three koras I play. I've got a kora with 31 strings now, which means I can play notes which were missing from the instrument's range before."

Born in Kankan in 1961 and descended from a long line of griots, Djeli honed his musical ear listening to his mother's singing and his father playing the balafon. He went on to launch his career in Mali, performing with the legendary Rail Band (a group formed in 1970 under the auspices of the Malian National Railways to play in the gardens of the "Buffet-Hôtel" at Bamako station). Djeli's half-brother, Mory Kanté, was also a member of the Rail Band but when Kanté left the group to try his luck in Abidjan, Djeli decided to follow him. Djeli went on to form his own group in the Ivoirian capital then eventually decided to go solo, putting out his debut album on an English label in 1983. But it was the kora-player's 1992 album, Cimadan, which really catapulted him to fame on the international "world music" scene.

Cimadan was recorded in a studio in Paris, the city Djeli has adopted as his second home and where he has been based for twelve years now. "I'm not interested in staying in Africa," Djeli explains, "We're just too cut off from things over there. What's more, it's extremely difficult to meet musicians from other cultures so it's hard to work on musical fusion." As passionate as ever about musical cross-over, Djeli is keen on working on more fusion projects with musicians like Brozman and, while he waits, he continues to play the kora every day without fail - "My life depends on it!" he declares.

Djeli Moussa Diawara & Bob Brozman Ocean Blues - From Africa to Hawaï (Celluloïd) 2000

Patrick  Labesse

Translation : Julie  Street