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Cheick Hamala Diabate: Malian

Posted Aug. 20, 2012, at 2:27 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 21, 2012, at 11:16 a.m.

Cheick Hamala Diabate, a griot (historian) from West Africa, will bring traditional Malian music, dance, and storytelling to Bangor. But Hamala reminds us that not every song has words, because not every performance needs them.

“Some music, we don’t need to talk,” said Hamala. “The music tells you about your life, tells you about your ancestors, tells you to be good, to respect your life, to respect yourself, to respect people.”

Griot is the name the French gave these Malian storytellers; the Malians call them djeli, and hold them in the highest regard. The djeli are cultural epicenters responsible not only for storytelling but for counseling and advice to all. People from all walks of life consult griot for guidance — from the poorest citizens to great political leaders.

Griots live and breathe their culture — the stories, history, songs, and music — with a mission to preserve it. And a griot cannot learn these things in school; instead, he’s the child of a griot who passes these traditions down from the time he’s born.

“We don’t go to school to learn stories,” Hamala said. “We learn from our father, grandfather, ancestor.”

The West African tradition of the griot dates back 800 years, and their skills and duties are many. They’re storytellers and praise singers. They’re poets and musicians. They relate gossip, engage in satire, and offer political commentary. They’re living libraries of culture and tradition, which they relate through oral tradition.

Diabate is world-renowned griot as a performer, lecturer, storyteller, and choreographer who has appeared across Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America. He is a master of the ngoni, a traditional Malian lute similar to the American banjo (which itself has its ancestry in African lutes).

Hamala was very young when he learned to play guitar, courtesy of his uncle Djelimady Tounkara, widely considered one of Mali’s foremost guitarists, active since the 1960s.

At 12, Hamala was invited to the National Institute of Arts in Mail’s capital city, Bamako, where he studied cinema, graphic arts, literature, music, and theater. After graduating, he began performing worldwide, playing and learning from many Mali musical greats, such as Slif Keita, Oumoi Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, and his first cousin Toumani Diabate.

Hamala came to the U.S. in 1995, when he began touring the country. When he discovered the similarities between his ngoni and the American banjo, he learned to play it and shared tunings and picking styles with banjo players. He has been called a virtuoso with the banjo and has collaborated with many banjoists, including 13-time Grammy winner Béla Fleck and old-time banjoist Bob Carlin. Hamala’s album of banjo duets with Carlin, “From Mali to America,” was nominated for a Grammy in 2008 for Best Traditional World Music Album.

He’s returned to Mali many times. His family and friends there are very pleased with his success, and how he has taken their culture and stories around the world.

“They are very, very happy,” Hamala said, but notes that while he lives here, Mali is still his homeland. “I’m in America, but I don’t forget what I am, and I don’t forget myself.”

Hamala is eager for his first visit to Maine.

“I’m so happy. I have toured America, many places, but I’ve never been to Maine,” he said. “But I’m excited to be there. I hope a lot of people come out to see me. My music is dance music, it’s very good for the festival. If a lot of people come, I will be more happy. It will be a good festival there, good music.”

He looks forward to meeting everyone at the festival.

“Enshallah,” he said. “That means ‘God willing.’”

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