On July 7th, 2007 (or as I would write it: 070707) I hopped on my bike and rode down to LeBreton Flats for another instalment of the Ottawa Bluesfest. It was a beautiful Saturday evening and as I handed my cycle over to the bike valet I looked up and noticed that the stars were aligning.
This was no real surprise. As a fledgling numerologist with an oversensitive leaning towards susceptivity my senses were honed and ready to embrace any synchronicity and magic that might present itself on such a nifty date. Or, to paraphrase Woody Allen: it’s all about showing up.
I believe the first thing I saw was Manu Chao, and if it wasn’t for the second thing I saw this entire missive would be about his manic Afro-Cuban/South American/Spanish jumping bean world music sound tsunami, but it isn’t. Manu Chao and his Radio Bemba cohorts were fantastic and were surely a necessary shard in the day’s mosaic, but there was no way the Great Convergence was going to happen on the mainstage.
I’m sure the last thing I saw was Michael Franti and Spearhead, and not just because I spent his set playing the “How you feelin’?” drinking game, a folly that could injure a lesser man. As any Franti veteran could tell you, the long tall dreaded man of peace, love, and funky musical vibes liberally peppers his audience with “How you feelin’?” after “How you feelin’?” and if you pledge to sip your drink after every rhetorical rock and roll query, well, it’s like cramming Century Club into a fifty minute set. Jumpy, raucous, libatious, purging, expensive, sloppy, bouncing fun it may be, but Spearhead’s upbeat soulfunk was too predictable to be truly magic.
No, that would come when a shrug of my shoulders and a blind trust in the consistent quality of the programming on the Black Sheep Stage introduced me to the hitherto unknown greatness of Malian kora maestro Toumani Diabaté. It was a random pull on the one-armed bandit of life and click click click those three golden sevens lined up and the payoff was huge. I stared at the stage enrapt in wonder as joyous shock and sonic surprise rained from this serene man playing his curious instrument.
Okay, I’ll land back on Earth here for a second and try to explain his set in less immortal terms if I can. He plays a instrument called the kora; I guess it most closely resembles a ‘cello except it has about twenty strings and it’s plucked like a harp. The musician sits behind the round gourd and reaches around with both hands to finger the many strings that run up either side of a fretless neck, and it turns out this Toumani Diabaté fellow is the world’s top kora guru. My gosh he was astounding.
Curiously, I had seen a kora before. There was one hanging on the wall for sale at the music store I taught at, though I had never seen anyone even try to hold it, much less play it. And here was Gabriel’s African angel reaching through the heavens with endless arpeggios of pentatonic bliss…it was like seeing someone put a piece of firewood through a lathe and turning it into a fine set of wooden plates and bowls; like, you can do that with that?
It didn’t hurt that he and his band were playing Malian music, endemic as it is with endless mystical polyrhythms steeped in unspoken numerology and subliminal synchronicity. I had a strong dose of exposure through two years of lessons from a master drummer from Mali; I would get even more when I would visit the country a couple of years later on the trip of a lifetime where I experienced the most incredible music imaginable every single day of the journey.
And here it was all at once and at its pinnacle. Toumani Diabaté sat in the middle of the stage surrounded by the best musicians his country could supply, each of which literally bowed down before their great master and bandleader as his calloused fingers and catgut strings delivered the haunting sound of the sands of the Sahara. The band knew they were in the presence of magic; knew better even than we in the transfixed audience. I mean, I can picture in my mind with great clarity the young guitarist with his red Gibson SG kneeling down and bowing his head to Diabaté while maintaining his steady accompaniment with eyes tightly closed in submission.
But even to say the other musicians were accompanying Toumani is giving them too much credit. Toumani Diabaté accompanies himself, as his ten digits pluck twice as many strings with an independence that produces bass, harmony, and melody all at once and without concession. And oh the melodies! Oh, the harmonies! And what spectacular bass! It was a sonic alignment of perfection.
I liked him.
As a matter of fact, as I walked in a trance towards the Michael Franti stage after the set I kept mumbling about how not only had I just seen the set of the festival, but I may have just seen the greatest musician alive…
Then I got all “How you feelin’?”-ed and partied my ass off.
(I just found the program for this Bluesfest in a drawer and have discovered that the order of acts was actually Franti then Manu Chau and then finally Toumani, so it appears that most of my guesses were wrong. Everything else is correct though, down to the last syllable.)