Spotlight Series: Cheick Hamala Diabate

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This weekend, the internationally renowned and virtuosic Malian musician, Cheick Hamala Diabate, brings his danceable and richly textured West African songs to two — yes, two — Levitt AMP stages! He graces Levitt AMP Berea tonight at 6pm, and Levitt AMP Greensboro tomorrow evening at 6pm. Considered a master of the ngoni, a traditional, lute-like stringed instrument, Diabate’s music started in his motherland and migrated to Washington, D.C., where he has worked with acclaimed producers, created a GRAMMY-winning World music album and toured relentlessly.

Diabate’s musicianship is steeped in the 800-year old tradition of the griot – nomadic poets, storytellers and oral historians who play a key role in preserving Malian folklore and heritage. As he explains in an interview with the Huffington Post, “Our music exists not only to be sung, but also to show respect and to maintain history.” He learned how to play the ngoni and guitar with the help of his family at a young age. However, having always been fascinated with musical cultures outside his own, migrating to the United States in the mid-90’s opened the door to a world of genres ripe for collaboration and fusion. He’s played and recorded with renowned figures such as Bela Fleck, paying homage to the natural ancestry of the American banjo in the West African ngoni. Newly interested in melding these two instruments, Diabate went on to record From Mali to America with Bob Carlin, winning a GRAMMY Award for Best World Music in 2007.

Since then, Diabate has pushed the global boundaries of his music even further. His band now features a fully electrified ngoni and banjo, plugged through effects pedals, along with the kora (harp), balafon (xylophone), tablas (Indian hand-played drums), electric bass, guitars and drums. It makes for a refreshing yet typically effervescent West-African sound. Collaborations have kept Diabate constantly interested in new styles, but also in exploring his own musical identity and philosophy. In an interview from 2009, he says, “When I got the chance to come (to the U.S.) and see how the banjo came from the ngoni, I was very happy to get a chance to play it. I am so excited to bring the banjo back to Mali and teach people something new.” His newest album, Ake Doni Doni, or “Take It Slow”, is a meditation on modern life and technology. He sees telecommunication as a way of showcasing Malian music on more interesting, widespread platforms.

Malian music has importance beyond its artistic traditions — traditionally, griots like Diabate, due to their keen sense of social responsibility and cultural history, are tapped with political responsibilities when it comes to Malian culture. He has often acted as a close advisor to the President of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure. In fact, according to Diabate, Toure often publicly acknowledges Diabate’s importance during speeches in Mali and abroad. Diabate has performed at venerable institutions like the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center and at embassies and ministries around the world, spreading the music of Mali to international listeners.

As a musician so deeply connected to his country and dedicated to being its artistic and political ambassador, audiences at Levitt AMP Berea and Levitt AMP Greensboro are in for a rare treat when they experience the beautiful music of Cheick Hamala Diabate.