Artist Profiles: Mamadou Diabate

Mamadou Diabaté - Photo by Angel Romero
Mamadou Diabaté – Photo by Angel Romero

Mamadou Diabaté was born in 1975 in Kita, a Malian city long known as a center for the arts and culture of the Manding people of West Africa. As the name Diabaté indicates, Mamadou comes from a family of jelis (which French colonizers call griots) as they are known among the Manding.

Jelis are more than just traditional musicians. They use music and sometimes oratory to preserve and sustain peoples’ consciousness of the past, a past that stretches back to the 13th century when the Manding king Sunjata Keita consolidated the vast Empire of Mali, covering much of West Africa.

The stories of these glory days and the times since remain important touchstones for people today, not only for the Manding, but for many citizens of Mali, Guinea, Gambia, and Senegal. So to be born to a distinguished jeli family in Kita is already an auspicious beginning.

Mamadou’s father Djelimory Diabaté played the kora, the jeli’s venerable 21-string harp, in the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali. At the age of four, Mamadou went to live with his father in Bamako, where the Ensemble is based. When it came time for him to return to Kita and go to school, Mamadou knew that the kora was his destiny. His father had taught him how to tune the instrument, and from there he listened and watched and devoted himself to practicing the kora, to the point that his mother worried that he was not concentrating enough on school. When she took his kora away, it only reduced his interest in studying, and he quickly resorted to making his own kora so he could continue.

Before long, Mamadou left school and began playing kora for local jeli singers, and traveling throughout the region to play at the ceremonies where modern jelis ply their trade, mostly weddings and baptisms.

When he was fifteen, Mamadou won first prize for his kora playing in a regional competition and instantly became something of a local celebrity. The next year, he went to Bamako, and under the tutelage of his famous kora playing cousin, Toumani Diabate, he worked the jeli circuit, backing singers at neighborhood weddings and baptisms and entertaining the powerful at the city’s posh Amitié Hotel.

Toumani gave his cousin the nickname Djelika Djan, meaning “tall jeli” (tall griot), a reference to Mamadou’s impressive physical stature. The name has stuck.

In 1996, a touring group from the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali offered Mamadou the chance to travel to the United States of America with a group of Manding musicians and cultural authorities. Following a successful tour, Mamadou decided to continue his work in the United States. Initially, he made his home in and around New York, but he now lives in the culturally rich Durham, North Carolina.

Mamadou gets frequent invitations to perform with visiting Malian stars and has performed at the United Nations and at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. In addition, he’s delved into uncharted waters, jamming with all manners of New York musicians, including jazz luminaries Donald Byrd and Randy Weston.

His album Heritage shows why the kora virtuoso is one of the essential names in Malian music. The CD contains elaborate ensemble-style instrumental pieces featuring traditional Malian instruments such as bala (balafon) and calabash, together with acoustic bass and guitar.

His fourth solo album, Douga Mansa, a tribute to his father and grandfather, won the 2010 Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album.

Discography:

Tunga (Alula Records, 2000)

Behmanka (Europe: Tradition and Moderne, 2004 / USA: World Village, 2005)

Heritage (World Village, 2006)

Douga Mansa (World Village, 2008)

Strings Tradition (Felmay Records, 2009)

Djan Djan (ABC Music, 2010)

Courage (World Village, 2011)

Griot Classique (2014)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.

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