Across Western Africa, the griot – think of them as a troubadour of sorts – holds an influential sociopolitical role, as the griot is historian, who weaves tales about their leaders exploits, daily struggles of the commoner, and of course the mythology that held it all together. And despite the incredible onrush of modernity to almost all aspects of life across the world, the griot is still a beloved figure across Western Africa. In fact, for the better part of the past half a century, Kassé Mady Diabaté has been recognized as one of the region’s finest and most important vocalists.
In fact, Diabaté is a descendant of one of the most distinguished griot families of that region, the Diabatés of Kéla. In fact, his auntwas the great griotte Siramori Diabaté, while his grandfather was known as ‘Jeli Fama’, which means ‘The Great Griot’, thanks to the gripping quality of his voice. But perhaps more important, Diabate’s family can trace its musical heritage to the very beginning of the ancient Manding Empire. Interestingly, its first emperor, Sunjata used music as a potent sociopolitical force – as it managed to unify people across a wide swath of Western Africa. (At the height of the Manding Empire’s power, it’s territory included sections of modern Mail and stretched out as far east as Burkina Faso.)
The work of modern griots such as Diabaté draw on ancient themes, melodies and song structures that they’ve learned since early childhood while tackling social issues of the day. But perhaps unlike any other griot, Kassé Mady Diabaté has played a role in some of the most innovative moments in Malian music – first in his own homeland and later with landmark international collaborations.
In 1970, a 21 year old Kassé Mady Diabaté became lead singer of the Orchestre Régional Super Mandé de Kangaba. And thanks to Diabaté’s vocals, which bore an uncanny resemblance to his legendary grandfather, the group won national attention after winning the nationwide Biennale music competition in Bamako. And while performing at the Biennale, Diabaté caught the attention of Las Maravillas de Mali, a group of musicians who had studied music in Cuba, and returned to Mali to perform their interpretations of Cuban classics. Pressured by the Malian government to incorporate a Malian repertoire, the group recruited the young vocalist to join them. Later known as Badema National, Maravillas de Mali achieved massive success across West Africa with songs that meshed elements of Cuban music with the traditional Mali touch.
By 1988, Kassé Mady Diabaté left Mali and Badema National and relocated to Paris. And while in Paris, he recorded his first solo album with the Sengalese producer, Ibrahima Sylla. He spent the next ten years in Paris, recording several albums before he returned to his homeland. This period was marked by collaborations with the flamenco group Ketama, Toumani Diabaté and the great bluesman Taj Mahal.
Of course, the past decade has seen a number of critically applauded solo releases, which have shown that Kassé Mady Diabaté has remained as vital and as import as ever. His forthcoming album, Kiriké slated for a January 6 Stateside release has the great griot once again teaming up with the young Malian kora master, Ballaké Sissoko and the iconoclastic French cellist Vincent Segal. So far, this collaboration has resulted in two critically applauded efforts, Chamber Music and At Peace. And Kirike reflects a current trend that’s been emerging in Bamako – one that focuses on the acoustic tradition.
Several months ago, Kassé Mady Diabaté and his collaborators were invited by the folks at La Blogotheque to perform material from Kirike and as you’ll hear on the two songs the trio perform, the material manages to be stunningly gorgeous, melodic and yet percussive. You’ll hear cascading chords paired with Diabate’s warm, earthy vocals. And with the griot singing in Bambara, the primary language of southern Mali, there’s a sense of the material being older than time itself, expressing things that are deeply universal and are within the blood – of the daily and yearly cycles, of earth and sky, of human frailty in a way that’s gentle yet powerful.