BAMAKO, MALI — On a moonlit African night in a leafy open-air bar, kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate is peeling off an ethereal flood of kaleidoscopic riffs from a 21-string cow-skin-covered harp like one his forefathers have played -- for more than 70 generations.
Past a motley array of modern-day musicians and a phalanx of traditional drummers, a twirling 2 a.m. crowd of Bamako's hippest has come to pay homage to a man many regard as the greatest kora player on the planet.
The music is East meets West, past meets present, a 21st century take on ancient Malian harmonies that smacks of flamenco, Far Eastern strings and the winding legato improvisations of free-form jazz.
For Diabate, the show is much more than just music: It's the preservation of culture and tradition, a way to keep alive the spirit of the defunct Mande empire that once stretched across a vast swath of West Africa.
Long before the region's history was recorded in books, it was told through a caste of griots, musical storytellers. Seven centuries later, the songs are still sung over powerful rhythms and haunting pentatonic scales produced on traditional instruments like the banjo-esque ngoni, the wooden xylophone-like balafon, and kora players from Guinea to Niger.
"If West Africa was a living being, the griot would be the blood," Diabate says over lunch at his Bamako home, scooping couscous and fish from a silver tray on his Persian-carpeted floor. "As griots, we are the memory, we are the link between society and the past."
Born in Bamako in the mid1960s -- he doesn't know exactly when -- Diabate began playing the kora at age 5.
Formally educated for only about 10 years, he was debilitated in his youth by a disease that shriveled his right leg and forces him to walk with a crutch. Yet he went on to stardom, revered by listeners thousands of miles away, idolized at home.
The first kora player to win a Grammy remains humble and infinitely good-natured, never too busy to shake the hand of a fan, even while he's performing.
Diabate won a Grammy last year for "In the Heart of the Moon," a series of unrehearsed duets with the late Malian blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure.
He recorded his debut CD, an acoustic solo work called "Kaira," meaning "peace," in 1987.
He went on to exhibit a bold knack for experimentation, collaborating with Spanish flamenco guitarists and Japanese musicians. A 1999 alliance with U.S. bluesman Taj Mahal, "Kulanjan," perfectly melded West African rhythms with American steel-string guitar. The same year he released "New Ancient Strings," an exquisite set of cascading acoustic kora duets performed with Ballake Sissoko. The work was an interpretation of "Ancient Strings," the seminal 1970s recording made by their fathers and credited with introducing kora music to the world.
Diabate says such instrumentals allow foreigners to understand Mande culture.
"Music has its own language," Diabate says. In the modern world, "you have lots of books about the histories. We have the Internet, we have mobile phones.... Now what we are doing is bringing the Mande culture outside of this continent to meet different cultures. We're still griots, but we are griots in different way."