Monday, February 28, 2011

Toumani Diabate Master Class Graduation

The film crew was taping a segment about making a kora when Mali's premeir kora master, Toumani Diabate dropped in to see how it was going. Asked for his consent to appear in the documentary, he said it would be fine to tape his master class graduation ceremony the next day, Feb. 20th, at a club called The Diplomat. The Diplomat is Toumani's regular spot for performing in Bamako. If he's in town, you can be sure to see after midnight any Friday night there.

We arrived an hour before the ceremony was to begin not sure what to expect. About 15 students were in various stages of setting up and tuning their koras. Other instruments were out as well. I noticed a large, powerful looking man enter the Diplomat and go straight to a balaphone giving it a few taps to hear how it sounded. Later found out that he was a maker of balaphones, a teacher, and a master musician of that instrument. He was the subject of two segments filmed later.

Toumani promised we could get a line out from the house mixing board ( a 24 channel Behringer). After checking with the club technicians, I connected a parallel split from the Left and Right outputs of the board to two tracks of the 788. It soon became apparent that very few instruments were going to get miced. DI lines from 2 or 3 koras was about the extent of it.

To pick up the instruments acoustically, we placed the stereo Neumann in an unobtrusive position about 10 feet in front of the stage left side. Also managed to get the U87 right on the stage with intention of getting the koras' natural acoustics close up. Setting up any more mics felt like it would be an intrusion.

The first kora performance was by Toumani's son who appeared to be in his late teens or early 20s. He clearly demostrated that he had either inherited, learned or both, his father's skills on the kora.

Much of the evening was taken up with speeches and the graduation ceremony, interspersed with a few more kora performances.

Toumani was holding court, making the rounds dressed royally in a dark green bouba. Full length stand-up posters with elegant graphics declared Toumani a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador in the fight against A.I.D.S. Our hope, at the very least was to get a usable sound byte from him.

A week earlier, Toumani had been in Los Angeles to receive a Grammy for his last album with Ali Farka Toure. The Grammy was presented to him again as part of this ceremony. His sister and some of her friends sitting in the back near the sound board, all dressed with formal elegance, began singing acapella songs of praise for Toumani and carried on even as the M.C. moved on to his next presentation. They carried on this singing - it was nice singing - for a good 15 - 20 minutes unconcerned with the disruption they were causing. Toumani, himself, appeared to ignore them. Someone later said that this was a thing they did sometimes to try to get some money. I don't think they were successful, most people looked confused by it or mildly annoyed.

Finally, toward the end Toumani's band got up on stage though it was still uncertain whether the master would sit in. His band had a full drum kit along with 3 drummers upfront playing a drum from Senegal called a Sabar which looks like a skinny djembe and is played with a stick. There was a bass player, guitar, n'goni, balaphon, and a cheesy synthesizer - no vocals. Someone else, obviously Toumnai's personal sound technician, came back to the mixing board to get their mix together. At the last minute, much to our delight, Toumani jumped in on the kora.

All evening the house sound techs had been friendly and easy going and helped, where they could, with my audio requirements despite our language differences. They were also very hospitable, making sure that I was supplied with cold drinks as they were also. When Toumani's soundman took over, he noticed I was there recording and made sure to ask if everything was ok for me. He was friendly and welcoming, also.

The only instruments going through the mixer were Toumani's kora, the bass drum mic, and the synth which I thought was mixed too far on top. But the kora still cut through. With the audio from the ambient mics, including at least one of the camera pair of mics, combined with the board mix, we had good audio to go along with the footage of Toumani playing.

It was official, Toumani Diabate was in the documentary. Unlike most performers, he had not required a fee. This was considered a bit of a coup as the production was hoping for names more familiar to American and International audiences to help market the release. Toumani had been coy about his participation the day before and there was uncertainty about it for most of this evening. I considered that he was feeling us out before jumping in.

After his performance things became chaotic - people looking for photo ops and to meet him. A local TV crew was there broadcasting the event live. Aja and the film crew managed to get in a few interview type questions with Toumani for the documentary. Later, Aja was interviewed on television about what he was doing. We are still wishing to have a more formal sit down interview with Toumani but he's hard to pin down.

As we were getting ready to leave, Toumani was still center stage basking in the moment. People were going up to shake his hand, he wasn't saying much but smiling broadly. I thought to make contact and went and shook his hand. He turned to me and said, "Thank-you, bro ... I am happy." He obviously was. That made my night.

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