Cheick Hamala with the President of MaliWashington may be chock-a-block with lobbyists and consultants, but only one of them rocks the n’goni, the West African plucked lute covered with animal skin...

His name is Cheick Hamala Diabate and he advises presidents and the World Bank. He’s played for everyone from a struggling couple trying to save their marriage, to the U.S. Congress. He’s hobnobbed with American string and Blues legends—from Bela Fleck to Corey Harris—and along the way reunited his beloved instrument with its long-lost grandchild, America’s banjo.

And now Cheick Hamala has taken Malian music global thanks to a unique African music incubator on the outskirts of Washington, DC, where he has gathered together friends and family, including bluesman Corey Harris, members of DC’s Afrofunk big band, Chopteeth, and his daughter and nephew, to form a creative community brimming over on his newest release, AKE DONI DONI - “Take it Slow” (Grigri Discs, 2009).

“The music we griots play is not just about making nice sounds for dancing, it’s about giving a lesson to people about their lives. You tell them about what their grandfathers did, and what they should do now,” explains Diabate, whose griot roots run deep as first cousin to kora master Toumani Diabate, and nephew to legendary Super Rail Band guitarist, Djelimady Tounkara. “People trust the griot more than anyone else.”

Cheick recording bolonThough Diabate may stick to the old-school role of the griot, his music embraces the panoply of sound he discovered in America, taking him beyond the traditional trio of griot instruments: the n’goni, kora (gourd harp), and balafon (wooden xylophone). Indian tablas pulse on several tracks, playing the role of the calabash (overturned dried gourd), while an accordion interplays with the overtones of the balafon’s resonant gourd. “It’s about being open to new ways of evoking the tradition,” explains Michael Shereikis, producer and member of Chopteeth, an Afropop-inspired band that also strives to support and encourage local African musicians by performing and recording together.

Cheick Hamala with banjo & friendLong before Diabate met Shereikis for sessions in the garage, he was exploring the connection between America’s traditions and his own griot roots. Like many American string players, including Bela Fleck with whom Diabate has collaborated and performed, Diabate noticed the eerie resemblance of his trusty n’goni and the banjo. In 2007, Diabate’s collaboration with banjo player Bob Carlin, led to a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional World Music Album.

Diabate has come to love the banjo, which shares tunings with the n’goni but which he often plays without a pick, using his carefully groomed nails. “When I got the chance to come here and see how the banjo came from the n’goni, I was very happy to get a chance to play it,” Diabate exclaims. “When I play banjo, it looks like I have been doing it for a very long time. It feels right. And I am so excited to bring the banjo back to Mali and teach people something new.”

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