By Ian Merkel
Cheick Hamala Diabate, a Malian jeli or caste musician, released his second solo album in the U.S. after his Grammy-nominated collaboration From Mali to America with Bob Carlin. He plays several instruments, but is most comfortable with his ngoni, a three-stringed lute that may have been the precursor to the banjo. Aside from the new channels that he has reached by way of recordings and concerts, Cheick maintains his traditional role of West African griot in oral history, societal intervention, and, most notably, marriages and other celebrations. Nonetheless, with the images on his album of modern telecommunications and means of transportation, he presents himself as something new -- an individual who exploits technology to preserve and evolve his culture. I took some time to talk to him about his new album Ake Doni Doni-- "Take it Slow"-- the role of griots in contemporary society, and some of the challenges facing his community, here in the U.S. and back in Mali.
Modiba: Cheick, how long have you been based in Washington, D.C.?
Cheick Hamala Diabate: I came in 1995.
Mod: Fourteen years ago, there must have been considerably fewer Malians in D.C. Without having established yourself as a musician in the U.S. and without the necessary Malian population requiring your services in wedding ceremonies, etc., how did you support yourself?
CD: When I came, I found a Senegalese friend who was a musician here. Even though he played kora, his father played the ngoni . And when he found out that I was from Mali and played the ngoni, he was very happy. He would come over to learn Malian music, and I would play with him. He opened a lot of doors for me, and little by little I carved out a place for myself. It took a long time, but, as they say, "the little bird makes its bed."
Mod: Can you speak a little about how your familial education as a griot influenced you--especially in encouraging you to look abroad, away from your native country? Your uncle Djelimady Tounkara in many incorporated the guitar into the jeli tradition in Mali, but what were you looking for in the U.S.?
CD: Griots have always been an important part of musical culture in Mali and should continue to be wherever they are. Our music exists not only to be sung, but also to show respect and to maintain history. When I came to Washington, there were some Malians there--and the embassy. As a griot, wherever I go I respect (praise) others, and they listen to what I say. It's as if we're still in Mali. I was born a griot, I will die a griot, and I hope that my work will continue the greatness of jeliw in the U.S.
Mod: In Mande society, it's easy to understand that hunters (donsow) would be interested in finding new game, territory, etc. But the jeliw (jeli plural) have typically remained close to security. As a griot, what exactly were you looking for in the U.S.?
CD: When I came to the U.S., I hoped to use my speech and music to share my culture. First of all, my ambition was to speak English. We Malians really love English, and some American singers even remind us of griots. We might not understand exactly what they are saying, but we do appreciate the sense of it. By learning English and making music in America, I hoped to do the same thing.
Mod: The 21st century is one of unprecedented growth for West African groups in Western cities like New York. You speak a lot of the difficulty of immigration in your track "Tounka Mani" (Rokia Traoré also sings about this on her new album Tchamantché). Could you talk a little bit about the myth of rags to riches and your experience with it?
CD: "Tounka Mani" means that leaving one's country to live abroad isn't a good thing. As a new member of society, you are like a child that is born. Let's take the example of a Malian coming to the U.S. On the plane he no longer hears Bamana nor French, and once landed, he realizes that everyone speaks English. Even if he needs a drink of water, he won't know how to ask for it--it's not easy. And our parents in Mali don't understand how much we work in America. After we've paid for our rent, automobile, clothing, and food, they expect us to send money back to them. They think that we have a lot of spare money, and that if we're not sending any we're keeping it to ourselves. You do your best, but really, it's better when you're in your own country. I'm very grateful for the opportunities that I've had--to play at places like the Kennedy Center--but everyone can't expect those kinds of opportunities.
Mod: In your view, has the economic crisis affected the impressions that Malians have of the U.S. as the land of opportunity -- even with the election of Obama, which Malians are generally very happy about?
CD: We're living in tumultuous times. I try not to discourage people from coming to the U.S., because it's not my place. As a griot, I do feel an obligation to let them know what's going on. The U.S. isn't what it was before, but I have a lot of faith that things will improve. It's a great country, and I just hope that the economy improves--because if things are not good here it affects all other countries. People should be able to come here, but it should be controlled.
Mod: One of the songs on your new album praises Amadou Toumani Touré, the current president of the Republic and the military leader who made possible the return to democracy in 1992. In the U.S. music more often than not serves to criticize politicians in power. I recognize all that A.T.T. has accomplished, but I hope you don't mind me asking: what need there is to praise a president that won 70% of the popular vote?
CD: He is a president that has a lot of respect for his culture. I'm also very well placed to serve as his griot in the U.S. Whenever he comes to the U.S., he lets me know and I meet him--Washington, New York, wherever he is. I typically let other Malians know if his visit, I introduce him like an ambassador, and then he speaks. Before greeting everyone, he says "I salute my great griot Cheick Hamala Diabate." He never forgets who he is. He always remembers his role as jatigi (benefactor would be one interpretation), and no matter how tired he is, he finds time for his community. It's always good to thank people for their good deeds.
Mod: With the implementation of certain new instruments--I think it is the first time that Malian music has employed the tabla (Indian percussion instrument)--you're in the process of making new sounds.
CD: First of all, music doesn't have borders. I have the opportunity to be in a diverse place like the U.S. where I can interact with Indian people--whereas in Mali it's only possible to see them at the cinema. In Mali, traditional instruments like the dundun sound like the tabla, and so I decided to invite a friend of mine over to play on the album. I also had an American sing on the album. The more people and styles that are involved in music, the more people will be interested in it.
Mod: The question of new technology is very apparent on your new album. The first person that I knew with an iPhone, by the way, was kora player Ballake Sissoko. You present yourself holding your ngoni, while talking on the phone with a plane overhead. In Mali, Internet cafes have sprouted up everywhere and everyone wants a cellular phone. Certainly these technologies are important for Mali's progress, but they also cost Malians a lot of money. How should Malians balance their goals for development with the risk of spending too much money on western companies' services?
CD: It had been awhile since I went to Mali, and when I went back I saw almost everyone in villages--tiny, isolated villages--with cellular phones. I have a big family and everyone has a cell phone--children going to school, mothers with nothing to do. We have to embrace the technologies of tomorrow. It's critical that everyone understand the Internet. Now, when I go back to Mali, I learn "secrets" about my phone that I never knew in the U.S. It's definitely progress, but at the same time that there should always be new technology, we should pay attention to how it enters our lives.
Cheick's new album definitely realizes this balance. Fortunately the progress and the very technologies that promise to provide new opportunities in Africa also signify an era where African music is sincerely breaking through in the Western world. But of course, just as title Ake Doni Doni suggests, it likely will not be overnight.