In the Heart of the Moon: Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté

REVIEW OF THE WEEK

In the Heart of the Moon

Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté

(Nonesuch)

4.5 Stars

My first experience with Toumani Diabaté was, to say the least, bittersweet. I came home with a brand new Taj Mahal album as my treasure of the day, eager to hear my hero sing “Queen Bee” in the fashion I have grown to love. Suddenly, Diabaté tinkled in on his kora one second into the familiar introduction, dashing my hopes, delicately; I had bought a collaborative album.

I later grew to appreciate this sound, after a fashion. But apprehension grew when I heard about “In the Heart of the Moon,” a collaboration between Diabaté and another one of my beloved Afro-bluesmen, Ali Farka Touré. I gave it a fair chance. And partly because I knew what to expect this time, and partly because these two are a much better fit, I liked this album from the start.

I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t surprises on this album, or that the sound is much like Touré’s previous efforts, my introductions to the beauty of African folk-blues.

But whether through ignorance or acute perception (is there really always a difference?), Touré’s fabled guitar and Diabaté’s kora (which is, to my understanding, a stringed Malian instrument rather like a harp) come together much more wholly than I had expected. The result of this cooperation has an undeniably island flavor, belying Diabaté’s familial ties to the island of Guinea and offsets the Malian traditions both musicians share.

Perhaps most stunningly, the entire album is apparently an improvised session spread out over three days, in the conference room of a hotel overlooking the Niger River. I guess they don’t get HBO there or something.

The real shock here then—and the effect that isn’t advertised or written about—is Diabaté’s dominance over Touré, which seems to stem solely from the nature of their instruments.

The kora’s range and volume seem to blast Ali into the background, a far cry from the loud and lyrical guitar so prominent on his other albums.

Another victim of the breadth of the kora is Touré’s singing, which is relegated to one or two songs on the entire album, a sacrifice of one of the most humanizing features of Touré’s work in the past.

I don’t claim to understand any of the 10 African languages Touré sings in throughout “Talking Timbuktu,” his collaboration with American multi-culturalist Ry Cooder, but I sure miss all those crazy words.

Yes, this album will surprise those looking for “Niafunke II,” or something similar to the Touré’s bluesy work of years past.

The surprise, however, may not be all bad. The sounds of light strings and island on-rhythms (and, occasionally, a guest piano lick by Mr. Cooder himself) might be just what you’re looking for while cramming, chatting, or passing out.

—Staff writer Henry M. Cowles can be reached at hmcowles@fas.harvard.edu.