When Mamadou Diabate answers the phone, the faint strains of a few random background notes dully sound through the receiver, and I realize that I have interrupted the Grammy-nominated 31-year-old musician in the middle of what he was quite literally born to do.
Diabate is part of a family of jelis, also known in his native Mali as griots. When born into such a family, one’s destiny is sealed; in this case, Diabate carries on a tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation in his family since the 13th century.
Accordingly, Diabate learned to play his family’s traditional instrument, a 21-stringed harplike gourd known as the kora, winning his first musical competition at age 15. (The African kora may not look much like a traditional concert harp, but the essentials are the same: thin wires strung across resonant wood that are plucked and strummed.) He appears twice in the North Bay, on Nov. 9 and 11.
Diabate moved to New York City from Mali in 1996, he says, because of the new opportunities for him as a kora player. It wasn’t because the money was good (“In the beginning, no money,” he says sharply, “but now, I would say yes”); rather, it was a change of setting. He had been playing at traditional weddings and festivals in Mali all of his life, and in New York, the potential for musical cross-pollination excited him. “I do a lot of different styles,” Diabate says. “I believe that’s why most people give me credit in this country.”
Eventually, Diabate would stretch the instrument’s contextual limitations by collaborating with luminaries from other genres, including jazz legends Donald Byrd and Randy Weston, blues stalwarts Eric Bibb and Guy Davis, and even the Irish vocalist Susan McKeown. He’s also collaborated with African artists, including Zimbabwean legend Thomas Mapfumo and Beninese vocalist Angélique Kidjo. “For me,” he says, “it’s not only my tradition, but I’ve put the kora through a lot of different music.”
When asked if there’s anyone back in Mali who might think of his experimenting with a celebrated tradition as sacrilegious, he laughs and says that, yes, that person is the same one who taught him and who helped him build the very kora he plays to this day: his father, celebrated kora musician N’fa Diabate.
“He thinks I’m playing classical European music with the technical ways of a new generation,” Diabate sighs, making it apparent that the rift between parents and their kids over musical tastes has no global barrier. “Back home, the people who used to hear my father’s style, they think the young generation maybe care nothing,” he explains. “We know that style, but we want to make it different, too, [so] people really can see the way we improve more on the instrument.
“But for me,” he continues, “I would say my soul is blessed for having that. It is very hard, even from playing the traditional Malian music. I created my own style, my own way. But, yes, it is hard.”
Folk traditionalists are generally suspicious of innovations to their adopted strain, but Diabate adheres to his family tradition through tireless dedication to his craft. Every day, he spends hours honing his pinpoint precision and Bach-like agility on the kora. “I wake up, every day and every night, I play the kora,” he says. “I have to do it to make my technique well, improving my way of playing. If I miss one week, I have a problem for my hands.”
Despite a destiny decided at birth, it is a source of great honor for Diabate to be a griot, an honor shared by his cousin, the renowned kora player Toumani Diabate. When pressed, he can’t possibly fathom another life for himself. “You could give me any other job,” he muses, “but I play the kora.”
How about a dentist? A carpenter?
“Only music,” he affirms. “Even now, my son, I’m teaching him kora too. It’s a family thing. You have to do it.”
Mamadou Diabate performs twice this week in the North Bay. On Thursday, Nov. 9, at the 142 Throckmorton Theater, 142 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. 8pm. $20. 415.383.9600. Again on Saturday, Nov. 11, at the 17th Annual Festival of Harps at the Spreckels Performing Art Center. The festival also showcases harpists from China, Ireland, Scotland, Paraguay and Mexico. 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. Two shows, 2:30pm and 8pm. $21-$24. 707.588.3434.