Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra
Boulevard de l’Independence
oulevard de l’Independence’s title asks for a political reading, particularly for Western listeners unable to interpret the album’s lyrics. But the titular image is also that of a road, a broad open lane that invites reckless speed. Boulevard plays like a series of in vivo experiments with momentum.
Diabaté has contributed thoughtfully to recent records with everyone from Damon Albarn to Ali Farka Touré, but in reclaiming his independence on Boulevard, he is determined to leave a mark. Diabaté has drafted the Symmetric Orchestra, a full-blown big band to back his kora and provide the elemental variables of his assays. In the abstract, this sounds like a shaky premise, the kora being one of the more delicate instruments you’ll find. And for all his eclecticism, Diabaté seems to have little interest in amping up his kora by dressing it in distortion and effects. The musical array must have been a nightmare to engineer and mix, but the result is worth every moment, yielding a sound spacious enough to embrace the pointillist frenzy of the kora alongside beefy horns, tight-wound bass and swelling strings, with all the stamina and lean muscularity of a marathon runner. Diabaté’s singing has never sounded more commanding or imperative. Horn stabs come as genuine surprises; the plucking of each string of the kora’s cascading riffs is distinct. Amidst the ever-shittier production on a number of recent records, Boulevard’s transparency and dynamic contrast is an unmitigated pleasure.
Some of Diabaté’s arrangements of Malian songs, including the excellent title track, generate their lilting energy with only the slightest help from pattering, marginal drums, while the kora channels the circular insistence of the desert blues. “Wasso” subtly ratchets up its tempo over its course, propelled by a throaty Malian guitar and a flute whose reedy peaks blend with the eerie wails of the flautist. “Salsa” bends itself to Cuban rhythms, leaning heavily on horns and a bassline as sexy as it is simple. The flamboyantly danceable result sounds something like Buena Vista sitting in with Fela.
“Mali Sadio” proceeds gradually, by threshing the kora’s fistfuls of seedlike notes with a one-two rhythm like the sound of a thousand feet moving in time. It builds over almost eight minutes, Diabate’s exhortations gaining steadily in urgency. I defy any listener to still be seated by minute seven.
Boulevard’s most breathtaking moments enact the slow realization of unstoppable force. If this year has produced a more compelling, impelling track (in the sense of imparting impulsion, impetus, speed) than “Tapha Niang,” I haven’t heard it. Life is momentum, and by the end of Boulevard, Diabaté has discovered the secret.