Mamadou Diabate is “a true master… a superb reminder of the thrilling power of west African music”(London Evening Standard). But Diabate isn’t just an award-winning virtuoso on the xylophone-like balafon, he is also an ambassador for the incredible West African musical culture of Burkina Faso’s Sambla people. There, each village, family and profession has its own piece of music which functions like a coat of arms, music is composed for every important occasion, and communal work is accompanied by music.
Diabate and his band Percussion Mania perform rippling, riveting West African traditional music from a region where music and life are interwoven in a concert on Wednesday, November 7, 7 pm, in Spaulding Auditorium of the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College. You can read more about Diabate and his band in these features in Dartmouth News and The Dartmouth.
In Percussion Mania, Diabate and his band members get a great groove on with balafon, drums, flute, kora, ngoni and electric bass. They also incorporate some traditional Burkinabe music in which the sounds are more than pleasing melodies – they are a form of speech.
Explains Dartmouth Linguistics professor Laura McPherson, who is co-teaching this fall with Diabate and Dartmouth musicologist Ted Levin, the language of the Sambla is highly tonal; the same phoneme has different meanings depending on the inflection with which its spoken. The result is speech that is a series of tones that can be understood as speech even when played, without words, by instruments like the balafon, said McPherson.
Explains Diabate’s website: “Without opening the mouth Sambla balafonists can tell stories, report on current events, chat with the people around, mock people who annoy them, and even flirting. For the Sambla people, all this is self-evident. Musicians who don’t speak this language can’t play Sambla music at all.”
At the start of the following clip, Diabate tells the audience in French that he is going to ask them a question and expects a “good answer” – and then proceeds to play a fabulous riff on the balafon!
Born in 1973 in Burkina Faso, where he learned his instrument and the traditions it embodies, Diabate currently lives in Austria. With his group Percussion Mania he won the Austrian World Music Award (2011) and the Grand Prix of the “Triangle du Balafon” Competition in Mali (2012). For his virtuosity, he was there also honored with the Prix Alkaly Camara de la virtuosité. In 2017 he was made Knight of the National Order (Chevalier de l’Ordre National) of Burkina Faso.
Diabate has released 11 CDs with his own compositions and two others with authentic music of the Sambla and Tusia peoples . In Burkina Faso, he has built a primary school where poor children are taught free of charge (www.sababu.info).
Diabate was born in 1973 into a West African “Jeli” family in Burkina Faso with a long tradition of storytelling and music-making. The very first Diabate (originally Dian-baga-te, meaning “the irresistible”) was mentioned in the Sundiata epic in the 13th century. At the age of 5 Mamadou Diabate started his professional training with his father Penegue Diabate, who in his day was considered the best balafon player far beyond the borders of the Sambla culture. At 8 Mamadou began with his apprenticeship years with renowned balafonists of neighboring peoples. However, by that time the Jelis has already lost their pre-colonial reputation as guardians of the tradition, speakers for the rulers and tutors of their children. Diabate was frequently sent home from school because his parents could not afford the school fees—an experience that later spurred him to create a tuition-free school.
At the age of 11, frustrated by his future prospects, he ran away from home intending to extend his skills and widen his musical horizons in Bobo Dioulasso, the second largest city and musical capital of Burkina Faso. With the help of neo-traditional groups such as Farafina, Sababougnoma and Frères Coulibaly, who later became world-famous, Diabate learned other instruments such as ngoni (hunter’s harp), dundun (bass drum), lunga (talking drum) and the most important one in the “Bobo-Dioulasso style,” the djembe.
In 1988, Diabate reconciled with his family when his father was looking for a suitable second balafon player for the National Cultural Festival (SNC) of Burkina Faso and discovered his son was now an excellent musician. During the following years they repeatedly won the festival‘s first prize.
In 1991, together with Ousmane Dembele (“Zoumana”) Moussa Coulibaly and Abdoulaye Dembele, he formed his first band, Landaya. Diabate was the composer and the balafon soloist of the group. In 1998 they won the first prize for the National Culture Festival of Burkina Faso.
During a Pan African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO) in Ouagadougou he got to know an Austrian traveler who was fascinated by the music of the Sambla and recognized Diabate’s outstanding musical talent. A deep friendship arose from this encounter and in 1998 he persuaded Diabate to present the Sambla culture and balafon in Europe. Diabate moved to Austria in 2000 and was soon collaborating and performing widely.
In August 2001 Diabate had an international breakthrough with his CD Sababu man dogo (“A chance is not just anything”), with own compositions in the popular Bobo-Dioulasso style, on which he played all instrumental parts himself. His second CD Keneya (“well-being”) in 2002 was the world’s first recording of the Sambla music and language. He had to play all instrumental parts himself, because he was the only Sambla in Austria at this time. Between 2002 and 2005 he toured with his Afro-jazz band Bekadiya, enriched with classical and jazz musicians. In 2003 they released the CD Sira Fila (Two Ways).
One of his earliest collaborators in Austria was the saxophonist Sigi Finkel; their duo CD Folikelaw was released in 2005, their Yala in 2010. Together with the Malian kora virtuoso also named Mamadou Diabate, Diabate composed and recorded music for the audio book African Love Poems in 2007.
With Percussion Mania, founded in 2006, Diabate focuses again on his West African heritage. Musical dialogues and spectacular balafon duels between the Diabate and his brother Seydou Diabate are central to this music. Their three CDs are Kamalenya (2006), Kanuya (2011) and Masaba Kan (2014), with Toumani Diabate and Cheick Tidiane Seck as special guests.
With his Lege-Lege-Foli project in 2009, Diabate gave Europeans their first chance to hear, live, authentic Sambla and Tusia musicians. That year Diabate released two CDs of that music. In 2010, at the urging of Austrian friends, he released a stunningly virtuosic CD of solo balafon music, Fenba. In 2012, with Wolfgang Puschnig (alto sax and flute) with Jon Sass (tuba), he released Mutua.
Barokan (2015) is a trio project together with Dramane Dembele on African flute and Claudio Spieler on percussion. Douba Foli (2016) features Percussion Mania with Malian pop singers Abdoulaye and Modibo Diabate and Puschnig, Finkel and Sass.
His lifelong desire to help poor children in Burkina Faso to get an education became a reality in 2010, when after six years of hard work and the help of benevolent people and organizations in Europe, he opened an elementary school in Bobo Dioulasso where today 450 children attend tuition-free.