If you’ve been following JOVM for the past few weeks, you may remember a lengthy post on the legendary Malian griot Kassé Mady Diabaté, who has been recognized during his 50 year career as one of Western Africa’s finest and most important vocalists. And this fact shouldn’t be terribly surprising as Diabaté is a descendant of one of the most distinguished griot families of that region – the Diabatés of Kéla. The Diabatés can trace their musical heritage to the very beginnings of the ancient (and powerful) Manding Empire, which at its height had territory that included huge sections of the territory that comprises modern Mail and stretched out as far east as Burkina Faso. In more modern times, Diabaté’s aunt, Siamori Diabaté was considered to be one of the region’s great griottes, which is quite a rarity, and his grandfather was a legendary griot that many called “Jeli Fama,” which translated into English means “The Great Griot."
And although modernity has encroached on almost every aspect of human life, the griot still holds an important role in Western African life; in fact, 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 tying the ancient with the modern in a rather seamless way.
Interestingly, 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 an emerging in Bamako’s music scene — an increasing focus on the acoustic and folk traditions of the ancient griots.
And if you stopped by a few weeks ago, you may have come across some live footage shot by the folks at La Blogotheque featuring Kassé Mady Diabaté and his collaborators were invited by perform material from Kirike. And much like the material performed for La Blogotheque, the album’s later single "Simbo” manages to evoke a sensation of profound peacefulness while possessing a gorgeous melodies and a percussive nature thanks to cascading chords on a xylophone-like instrument. Paired with kora, other traditional Western African instruments and Diabate’s warm earth vocals sung in Bambara, the primary language of Southern Mail, the current single and the material I’ve heard on Kirke bring to mind the fact that creating music (or any art, really) is a vital and basic human need, as it evokes something older than time itself.