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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.

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