Mamadou Diabate: Kora Master

After writing a bit about hip hop music and my brother’s recent post on some blues, it occurred to me that we have barely covered world music. Now granted, I do not listen to a bunch of world music, although this is something I’d like to change. There is just so much out there in the world and I am sure there is a lot of music I would love that I just haven’t heard yet.

I also would like to expose myself to a lot of different music for my own learning because you never know when you will hear something that inspires you or helps you to adds something new to your playing. My dalliances with world music are pretty slim. I had a friend who brought me a bunch of reggaeton from Venezuela that I really liked. The only problem was that he didn’t have any of the names of the artists. Here’s kind of what it sounded like.

It is certainly fun music with an interesting beat that you can instantly dance along to while driving an old Toyota truck very slowly on a dirt road at two in the morning (which is where I first heard this music). The friend who introduced me to this stuff actually now lives in Florida so I hope he is reading this for what comes next. When I was in grad school and a full decade after it came out, I was introduced to The Buena Vista Social Club which pretty much took over my musical listening life for about a month. I think I was the last person to hear about it but it really blew my world up. Here’s the first track.

If you don,t know about these recordings, I’ll fill you in very quickly. The music you heard there is from an album the American guitarist Ry Cooder produced called The Buena Vista Social Club which brought together a bunch of Cuban musicians from the 1940’s who used to all play together in a social club of the same name. It really brought Cuban music to the forefront of world music scene and made Cuban music hip across the board.

(According to one Cuban American I spoke to, most of these tracks are traditional Cuban songs that are sung in the street and at various gatherings so it really exposed the world to some authentic Cuban flavor and truly pissed off some folks who felt Cooder exploited their tunes. Such is life, he also got sued for doing business with Cubans, something like a $25,ooo fine. Also, when these guys tour, they get paid way less than they should because of the existing embargo on their country from the U.S. This is bullshit and we really need to change that law, if only to compensate artists.)

But this post is not about reggaeton or about Cuban music, it’s about Mamadou Diabate. He is a legend in world music and he, along with various relatives,  were instrumental in bringing Western African music and the kora to the world’s musical consciousness. For those people that don’t know what a kora is, it’s sort of like a huge harp-like instrument made out of a calabash melon. It’s actual classification is a double bridge harp lute and it has 21 strings. It can sometimes sound like a harp and sometimes like a guitar in the delta blues or maybe even a flamenco style. Here is the main subject of this blog post playing the instrument.

I really enjoy listening to this music. I find it incredibly soothing and familiar, yet also starkly different from anything I have or normally listen to. It is a sort of mixture of cool guitar jams with classical music and often in very different rhythms because of the style of music being from Western Africa. This is  a widespread musical form in Western Africa and the people who play are known as “griots” which means historian/storyteller/ musician (and probably several more things).

Much of Mamadou’s family is involved in music and he actually lost out on a World Music Grammy to his cousin in 2006, although he did pick one up himself in 2010. I have been lucky enough to see this man live and obviously, there is a short story attached. It all started when I signed up for a one credit class in college called “Music in Live Performance”.

An old roommate of mine was always on the look out for easy credits and this one was well-known as a cakewalk that was actually very fulfilling  You had to attend five different shows at the college recital hall and then write a short piece on what you saw. Most of them were not everyday musical forms for me. I saw a Canadian banjo/steel guitar player named Harry Manx who tore it up on a few Hendrix covers, a rocking bluegrass band, a group of Irish a capella singers and multiple musicians in the classical form on various instruments.

The coolest performance was Mamadou by a long shot. We actually got to do a meet and greet before the show, mostly staring up at Mamadou (since he is so tall). He made NBA players look short and was also difficult to understand, but you got the gist of what he was saying. He had with him a xylophone player and  percussionists who used various melons, one of which burst open dramatically during a particular heavy song. All I remember thinking was how much cooler this was than a Gallagher performance with the watermelons.

At the end of the show, Mamadou was dancing in the aisles of the recital hall and trying to get everyone to join in. It was a very cool show and unlike anything I have ever seen, I bought his cd Tunga on the spot and it’s been a mainstay for me when I need something calming or even just out of the norm to listen to.  I am very fortunate to have had this experience because I am not sure I would have come across this style of music otherwise. It is interesting how many different ways we come across new music from friends to siblings to taking a class because you thought it it would be an easy credit.

What other types of world music should we get into? I am all about looking more into different music and would love some suggestions. As a concluding note, here is Mamadou with a special guest who is very near and dear to my heart, the one and only Taj Mahal.

5 comments on “Mamadou Diabate: Kora Master

  1. theelderj says:

    Great post. I really like the bit about Diabate and his family being from a caste of singers whose social position embraces roles of historian/entertainer/educator/poet etc. This reminds me a lot of the conventional position of poets in early Greece (e.g., Homer and Hesiod).

    The music is really good and, even more amazing, is that you met him as part of a class. What a great class. Makes me feel that my classes are a bit lacking

    • theyoungerj says:

      I was lucky and it was driven by my desire to get an easy credit. It turned into an incredibly enriching experience and in some ways, the writing afterwards was a sort of precursor to writing this blog. It was the first time I wrote about music.

  2. londongigger says:

    In 2009 I was likely enough to see Tourmani Diabate at the Field Day festival in London and again playing in Afrocubism last year which is essentially Malian musicians including the Diabates and the Bueno Vista social club. Absolutely brilliant.

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