Defining a griot’s role in West African society can be a challenge, as the title doesn’t translate easily to European-based culture.
Roughly, a griot is fluent in history and has a deep understanding of the culture and lineage of the clan in which they were born into. Historically they would counsel kings and tutor princes, and often counsel other families of means. They’re also storytellers and musicians.
Mali-born musician Cheick Hamala Diabate said being a griot means his music is intricately intertwined with many disciplines.
The now resident of Washington, D.C., travels the country to share the oral history, music and songs of his culture as it was passed on to him from birth by his parents. He'll play the HeART for Africa Concert on Sunday, Aug. 19, at the Castle Theatre, as well as a more intimate show the night before at Reverberation Vinyl in Bloomington.
Speaking from his D.C. home, Diabate said griot traditional songs may incorporate family names dating back hundreds of years, in order to distinguish the storyteller within the history of the family. As an example, he references a traditional Mali song that ended with a family. He demonstrated the potential lineage by ending the title with would sounded like a dozen names.
“All the last names in West Africa Mali,” said Diabate. “If you tell me your last name, I’ll tell you who they are, that’s why it’s very important.”
Diabate’s go-to instrument is the traditional West African n’goni, which produces a similar sound and encourages the same techniques of strumming and picking as a banjo. Matter of fact, the American banjo is a descendent of the n’goni. He said when he arrived in America in 1995, he began to put the n’goni and American banjo music together. It eventually led him to the Grammy nomination for Best Traditional World Music Album in 2007 for his collaboration with American Bob Carlan on the album “From Mali to America.”
“I was so happy to be in Los Angeles with all those big artists and walking the red carpet,” said Diabate.
He also treasures his collaborations with innovative American banjo player Bela Fleck, and admires him for traveling to Mail to learn Diabate’s music.
“Anywhere he plays people all over the world like it. And this music sounds very much like it. It brings them some peace and to be interested in life. Thus the music is very important,” said Diabate.
Cheick Hamala Diabate plays the HeART for Africa Concert on Sunday, Aug. 19, at the Castle Theatre, as well as a more intimate show the night before at Reverberation Vinyl in Bloomington.
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