An interview with Cheick

A Deep Thing: Mali’s Cheick Hamala Diabate Brings Griot Smarts, Catchy Sounds to the Whole World on Anka Ben Mali Denou

Listen up: Malian griot Cheick Hamala Diabate has something to tell you, and he’s got centuries of song, knowledge and wisdom in his repertoire. You can hear it all on his new album Anka Ben Mali Denou.

A djeli (griot) from one of Mali’s most storied musical families, Diabate is keeper of a vibrant musical tradition that blends history and performance. Equal parts musician and storyteller, Diabate’s art is rooted as much in strings, percussion and sound as it is in praising, chiding, entertaining and reliving Mali’s past. You can think of the djeli as a modern-day troubadour – and in the realm of West African world music, Diabate is considered both bard and king.

“People need me here, just like they need me in Mali,” Diabate exclaims with a laugh. “You try to remind them, help them remember to be careful with life, to be respectful and not forget themselves. When I sing songs, that’s part of it.”

On his new full-length release,  Anka Ben Mali Denou, this king of ngoni – a plucked West African lute and banjo precursor – fuses his native Malian roots with the urbane vitality of his American hometown of Washington, DC. Diabate dazzles on ngoni, banjo, and guitar to tell the story of his musical past, with cameos by kora icon Toumani Diabate, guitarist Djelimady Tounkara. and American bluesmen Corey Harris and Phil Wiggins (“Diamonds and Gold/Mali Blues”). Working closely with a homegrown, Afro-pop-loving DC band, Diabate captures the grit of his journey from Mali to America, the refinement of his musical lineage, and the funk and energy of a good old electric jam.

Adding a horn section (“Fanta Baby”) or a psychedelic guitar riff (“Dounouya”) to fundamentally traditional song structures, Cheick and his band show the flexibility and danceability of griot beats, words, and melodies – all powered by Cheick’s husky voice, spitfire strings, and sometimes thoughtful, sometimes teasing lyrics.

For a djeli like Diabate, music is only half the story. Diabate honors his role as truth-speaker and oral historian, as musician who pays homage to his patrons while keeping them their toes. It’s a role equally suited to Mali and the U.S., and informed by both places. “I’ve been staying here for a long time,” Diabate reflects. “I’ve met a lot of people and learned something from them. I have a lot of ideas, and have become very open, so I put a lot of sounds and ideas together.”

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Given ngoni’s ancestral relationship to the American banjo, it’s become commonplace to link them, but Diabate lives at the intersection of the two. A frequent collaborator of American banjo heavyweights like Bela Fleck, Diabate moves nimbly from his first instrument to his great  American love – even his musician mother in Mali can’t tell which is which over the phone.

Ngoni is the father of the banjo,” Diabate explains. “People speak about the banjo, how it came from the ngoni, but I hear the connection all the time. Every song I play on ngoni, I put onto the banjo and it works perfectly. The banjo taught me a lot. I’m so happy to get to know this instrument.”

He’s gotten to know it like the back of his hand, and uses it to great effect on Anka Ben Mali Denou in combination with a variety of sounds. On “Prudence,” Diabate’s banjo and ngoni cascade and swoop through taut guitar lines and mellow bursts of brass. On “Boudofo” – one of the album’s several tracks recorded in Bamaka – the banjo weaves together with Toumani’s kora to create a lush backdrop for soaring vocals.

Though Diabate’s traditional role is one of teacher, adviser, and historian, he finds intense joy in learning from others. His Malian tradition became the perfect vehicle for cross-cultural collaboration. For Diabate, it’s easy to get rock musicians or veteran blues players into the Malian groove, as the music has an appeal that transcends origins.

“This music is universal,” notes Diabate. “I didn’t speak any English when I came to America, but I communicated with my music. I would drive over and teach Corey [Harris] before I could speak well. The music did the talking.”

His music has kept Diabate at the center of a lively group of Malian émigrés and patrons (honored on tracks like “Fatou Kounkoun Sissoko”), where he still earns a living and community respect singing and playing at traditional gatherings. But Diabate is just as likely to be spotted playing on Capitol Hill—he’s the griot of the U.S. Congress—or at a hip club or music festival, where some of DC’s strongest Afro-inspired musicians support him, and leap like Diabate himself from electric to traditional instruments.

Yet in the end, it all gets back to the profound, intertwined world of music and message, both at his most light-hearted (as in “Minaminka,” based on the humorous tale of a chicken-loving lady Diabate learned as a child) or when contemplating the violence wracking his once-peaceful homeland. “You’ve got to be careful in life,” Diabate muses. “To be careful, to end fighting, we have to be together to progress. No matter where we are. That’s part of what I mean when I sing about the whole world.”

“I’m really happy to be a musician who can sing about life,” Diabate concludes. “It’s a deep thing.”