A legend among legends is an understatement when dealing with Toumani Koné. Nicknamed "the Lion of Wassoulou" he was successor to the throne occupied before him by historic, but unrecorded legends like Ngonifo Bourema.
Ali Farka Touré described him as "very special", "very difficult to imitate" and "a great authority on the legends, on the culture and art of the Wassoulou region". And he stressed that he meant the whole of the sizeable region. More particularly Toumani's expertise lay in the profound knowledge of the culture of the hunters, a culture surrounded by a wealth of rules, secrets and mystery.
Moreover, he was a member of a family of blacksmiths,- which linked him to another society filled with cultural secrets and a strong tradition.
Toumani started as a singer/ngoni player, but had to limit himself to singing after loosing fingers in an accident (which gave rise to a endless stream of rumours about jealousy and sorcery). As a ngoni player he was in a league of his own, according to Alou Fané, to whom Toumani Koné had been a major source of inspiration.
I will certainly be posting more of his cassettes, which - by the way - have been re-released in Mali many times over the years, but in a increasingly worse audio quality. This cassette is from the 1980s, and was released with two covers (but exactly the same music); one of these portrays the artist.
Together with Vol. 1 (which I will post at a later date) it contains Toumani Koné's greatest 'hits', all of which were recorded by Radio Mali (ORTM). Over the years I have listened to these cassettes with a lot of Malian musicians, and two things have struck me: 1. the immediate attention and awe Toumani's voice provoked and 2. the fact that nearly all of these musicians used titles different from the ones on this cassette for these songs, - with the notable exception of "Gon Maigni", which appears to be a slight misspelling of "Gon Magni" ("Monkey is no good").
Concentrating on the music, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand why this man is considered a legend. What a voice, what power, what passion! When listening to this music for the first time, you may get the impression that the rhythm of the songs is roughly the same. But after a while you will get to distinguish the incredible variety and the unbelievable complexity of these rhythms. Each individual rhythm has its own meaning, I have been told, and refers to a detail of the extensive tradition of the hunters. There are rhythms that are related to certain animals and their gait, and there are rhythms that in themselves carry a message and shouldn't be played by those who are not initiated into the secrets that lay behind these rhythms.
Unfortunately, nowadays Toumani Koné is too often only mentioned in relation to artists that borrowed from his extensive legacy. Even his daughter, Mama Toumani Koné, seems to get more webspace than her father.
I met this master at his very last concert (Toumani Koné fell ill and died shortly after returning to Mali), in the banlieu of Paris, when my late friend Alou Fané had the honour to accompany him. I will dedicate a future post to this remarkable encounter.
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