Djan Djan | Diabate, Lang & Singh

Djan Djan | Diabate, Lang & SinghDjan Djan is the name of a collaboration between Malian kora master, Mamadou Diabate, blues guitarist-singer-songwriter Jeff Lang and tabla savant Bobby Singh. They've an ep out and are mid-tour, their latest stop having been last night, at the ubiquitous Basement.

But first things first, what is a kora? Well, I'm no expert, as might too readily become apparent, but, suffice to say, it's a 21-stringed West African instrument, falling somewhere in tonality and character between a harp and a lute. Just as, one imagines, the harp is an impossibly daunting instrument to play, the kora has a similarly unapproachable, rarefied aura. So, when one witnesses, with one's own disbelieving eyes and ears, the calibre of a player as accomplished and self-assured as Diabate, one knows one is within the presence and proximity of greatness.

As it happens, Mamadou is built like a veritable god, or at least like a Harlem Globetrotter, as if his physical stature mimics his musical one. I won't insult you with any romantic cliches about elegant, sensitive, artistic hands for, this appearance aside, the artistry lies in the flurry of fingers that produce the most hypnotic melodies. The kora and this player have many dimensions. With 21 strings, the possibilities are almost infinite; thus, it provides a bassline (the backbone of everything else played upon it), rhythmic layers, rich harmonics, depth, warmth, intimacy and delicate top notes. Made, in part, from a slashed calabash (a ridiculously large fruit-cum-vegetable) and tough cowhide, despite its rustic charm, the kora will never win a swimsuit competition but, like the elephant man, its profound beauty is more than skin deep. In practice, it has an awful lot in common, stylistically, with various forms of the guitar, which is, in part, why Diabate and Lang work so well together. Add the third man, in the form of the percussive panache of Singh and you've got three sticks of pure dynamite!

Diabate (born in Kita, near the Malian capital of Bamako, but now living, I understand, in North Carolina) is a dinkum griot, jeli, or bard, a veritable repository of oral tradition; a recklessly romantic, but very real notion of the legendary wandering minstrel, poet and praise singer. He sings, too, in that characteristically restrained, guttural West African way, in a language we can all understand, even if we know it not.

Bobby Singh is just as enigmatic. He learnt his craft from the greatest tabla teachers, including the likes of the very much in demand Aneesh Pradhan. He's a prolific collaborator and has an eagle eye for exciting partnerships. His partners in the sublime include oudist Joseph Tawadros, The Cat Empire and John Butler trio, to say nothing of a host of other classical (for example, Slava Grigoryan) & jazz-fusion (think Sandy Evans) projects. And his work with The Bird, an electronic ensemble, is renowned. At his furious best, his showy technique and lightning fingers quicken the heartbeat; while his warm smile and palpable humility charm.

Jeff Lang, with his porkchop side-levers, looks like a less emaciated Tim Rogers, with western shirt and what looked like a woollen suit (doesn't he know it's summer). John Butler reckons he's the man and it's easy to see why. Bruce Elder has put it very succinctly: 'Lang is the godfather of an Australia-based, back-to-basics blues movement, that now encompasses (the) John Butler Trio, Ash Grunwald & Xavier Rudd'.

His tools of trade (the subtlety of his technique means he never grinds axes) include a covetable, classic, '60s Airline (a veritable Caddy), his exquisite Churchill Sunburst acoustic &, from the same boutique Ballarat maker, an acoustic lapsteel, all of which owe much to his sound, but which would, equally, be as nothing, in less able hands.

In the same way a picture paints a thousand words, his guitars speak volumes. As a lyrcist too, his imagery is rich & redolent and his storytelling engaging. In a sense, he's an Aussie griot: in much the same way as, say, Lawson might've been; folk hero and troubador. His playing reflects absolute understanding of & empathy with his instrument; his gentle vocal delivery reflects a knowing melancholy; without the world-weariness of Tom Waits. In drawing on folk, country and blues traditions, he has synthesised something inimitable, extraordinary & absolutely compelling.

The sympatico and interplay between the three literally has to be heard to be believed: to this end, I enthusiastically endorse the tour and mini-album out now; indeed, there's no better showcase of the fruits of the collective's spontaneous labours of love (but a day of recording at Melbourne's 30 Mill studios) than Mama Lang Singh, from the mini-album. As touted, this was & is a dialogue between devotees of different forms, which form a transcendent, separate other.

Diabate, Lang & Singh meld mellifluously. While solo kora takes some exposure & experience to get inside ('though I was dumbstruck by the traditional song structures' affinity with the blues), this almost definitive world musical trio breathtakingly demonstrates what synergy really means. If only political compatibility were so effortlessly achieved, peace might have that very chance of which Lennon dared to dream.

Mamadou Diabate, Jeff Lang & Bobby Singh
Djan Djan

Venue: The Basement, Sydney
Date: Thurs 8th January

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