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Mamadou Diabate: Malian, Way Cool

Malian kora master Mamadou Diabate is a long way from home, but he has had little trouble making himself comfortable in American musical settings. As his surname indicates, Diabate was born into an illustrious family of griots, or jelis as they are known among the Manding people. Far more than traditional musicians, jelis are oral historians who serve as the Manding’s living memory, singing of heroes and kings stretching back to the sprawling Malian empire that encompassed much of West Africa in the 13th century.

While Diabate has continued to play traditional music with fellow Malian musicians since moving to the United States in 1996, he has also collaborated with a impressive range of artists, such as Irish vocalist Susan McKeown, Zimbabwean hero Thomas Mapfumo, Benin’s Afropop star Angelique Kidjo, blues masters Taj Mahal, Eric Bibb and Guy Davis and jazz greats Donald Byrd, Randy Weston and Roswell Rudd. Many jazz fans first became aware of Diabate’s rolling kora cadences through his work on bassist Ben Allison’s gorgeous 2002 Palmetto album Peace Pipe.

“I look for new experiences,” says Diabate, 29, from his home in Ithaca, N.Y. “It’s good to play my traditional music, but I like to get together with a lot of different musicians so I learn their music too. I come from a long line of musicians, but you have to know that this country is a big musical place too.”

Son of kora virtuoso Djelimory Diabate and cousin of Toumani Diabate, another kora master who has collaborated with American jazz musicians, Mamadou recently released the haunting solo album Behmanka (World Village), which features traditional kora pieces with harmonies he’s developed by working with jazz players and the acoustic guitarist Walter Strauss. Diabate learned many of the pieces as a child, and his aim is to show that the kora, a 21-string instrument with a long neck and a bright, banjolike sound, is limited only by a player’s imagination.

“Today I have other influences and more technique than when I first learned these pieces, so I try to mix that with the traditional songs,” Diabate says. “People listen to the kora, they think it’s a traditional instrument, but the kora can do more than that. Traditionally kora players work by themselves because the kora has high, medium and bass, so you have the full band with you. Now some people join with a singer, or do their own band, like me, in a more improvisational environment.”

No American musician knows more about the power of Diabate’s creative ingenuity than Roswell Rudd, who has hired him for several tours to fill the kora role originally created by the Bamako-based master Toumani Diabate on the trombonist’s Sunnyside album MALIcool.

“The success of that collaboration inspired us to put together something along the lines of MALIcool, using people from the New York area,” Rudd says. “Mamadou was crucial for the American version. He’s very determined about getting involved and coming to terms with the various musical variables in this culture. My material is largely closed-form, while Mamadou and Toumani’s traditional compositions are for the most part open-form. And this is where I can see his determination to have his feet firmly planted in both worlds. I’m looking forward to what he comes up with.”

Originally Published