Mamadou Diabate - Biography
The kora is a intimidating instrument, a 21-string harp, with a towering neck, and a resonator made from an enormous, elaborately detailed, pumpkin-sized gourd. At 6’7”, the immense Malian musician Mamadou Diabate is just as intimidating — until his stout thumbs and elegant fingers begin to gently flow across his instrument’s strings, and amazing streams of sound pour forth. The kora is the traditional instrument of the griots, the artists who have acted as society’s storytellers, historians and aural documentarians in the West African nation of Mali since the 13th century. Yet, while Diabate comes from a long line of griots and is achingly fluent in the idioms of the past, he is also firmly grounded in the present, and allows his music to intermingle with contemporary forms, including jazz and the blues. The results have an intricate, unmistakable appeal, as Diabate builds sonic bridges from 13th century Malian courts to 21st century Manhattan stages. Diabate has become a singular force in popularizing his native music throughout the world, and his Grammy nominations attest to his unlikely yet well-deserved mainstream appeal.
Diabate’s masterful command of the kora is a birthright. His father, Djelimory Diabate, was a renowned kora performer, as is his cousin, Toumani Diabate. Mamadou fixated on the instrument at an early age, and was a minor local celebrity in his adolescence. Within a few years he was touring with the Instrumental Ensemble of Mali; soon afterwards he moved to New York, where he met a number of jazz musicians, including bassist Ira Coleman. Coleman joins Diabate on his glistening debut, Tunga (2000 Alula), providing some subtle anchorage and contrapuntal weight, but the focus is entirely on Diabate and his fantastically dexterous skill at coaxing furious flurries of note and mesmerizing rhythms from his instrument. In many ways, the star of the album is the kora itself. It’s a thoroughly unique sounding instrument, awash in subtle tones of melancholy while remaining oddly buoyant and conversational.
Interest in Diabate’s craft rapidly spread, and his next album earned much critical acclaim. Behmanka (2005 World Village USA) veered away from traditional court music, increasing the pastel pallet while still demonstrating plenty of polyrhythmic bliss. It garnered Diabate his first Grammy award nomination in 2005, in the World Music category. Heritage (2006 World Village USA) is slightly more wistful than its predecessors, but tracks like “Djiribah” breathlessly spin, while “Segou Blues” is a perfect example of Diabate’s keen ability to toy with styles while retaining his own unmistakable identity. The album is highlighted by some wonderful guest appearances, including Bala Kouyate on balafon (an enormous African idiophone), Guinean guitarist Djikoryam Mory Kante, Baye Kouyate on cabasa (a gourd-bassed rattle), and the American jazz musician Noah Jarrett on bass.
In 2008, Diabate released Douga Mansa (World Village USA). It’s a masterpiece of artful interpretation, frenetic fingerwork, lyrical narratives and exquisite sonic vistas. It won him a Grammy for Best Traditional Music, and punctuated a remarkable journey from West Africa to stages around the world. Diabate has performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institute, the United Nations, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and at festivals from Indonesia and Australia to Europe and Africa. Throughout, Diabate maintains a spirit that manages to run as a continuous thread through all his albums. For all of the physical rigor and technical virtuosity that his work displays, the true gift of Mamadou Diabate’s music is that it reaches out to the modern world, while remaining firmly rooted in the traditions that have passed through his family for over 800 years. That’s a powerful statement on the resiliency and necessity of music, and its remarkable ability to communicate across national boundaries and the vagaries of time.