Album review: "Kirike" by Kasse Mady Diabate
"Understanding is what we wish for: to live in peace"

Kasse Mady Diabate has been described as "the greatest singer in Mali". He is more than just a singer, he is also a griot: an oral historian and musical storyteller. On his latest CD, "Kirike", Kasse Mady Diabate goes back to his musical roots. The result, says Richard Marcus, is captivating

It is easier to think of things as homogenous. It allows us to define the world around us in easy to digest, black and white, chunks. Unfortunately when we do this we miss out on the beautiful diversity lying beneath our simplistic divisions. It also makes it easier to stereotype a people or a belief system. Nowhere is this more obvious in our willingness to lump all of Africa together as a single entity instead of a continent rich in national and tribal cultural traditions. One only has to look to the music of Mali for a microcosmic example of the continent's multicoloured mosaic.

While the country has become synonymous with the desert blues made famous by the Kel Tamasheq band Tinariwen and individual Malians such as Vieux Farka Toure, those genres are only the tip of the iceberg of a musical tradition dating back hundreds of years. It was the Manding Empire, founded in the thirteenth century and covering most of West Africa, that made music such an essential part of the cultural fabric of the nation. Looking for a way to stitch together a disparate group of people, Emperor Sunjata turned to music and Manding's hereditary musicians, griots (oral historians), to spread a message of social harmony and create common bonds between communities. While the empire no longer exists, griots and their musical traditions are still an important part of Malian culture.

Kasse Mady Diabate was born in 1949 and inherited his talent from both his grandfather and aunt, who were griots before him. He began his training when he was only seven and went on to enjoy a successful career as a singer in Mali until 1988. He then moved to Paris where he recorded and lived until the late 1990s, when he returned home. His latest recording, "Kirike", released in North America on Six Degrees Records, is an album steeped in the history of his country's music, but not limited by the confines of tradition. For while he draws upon his traditions as a griot for lyrical inspiration, musically the album reflects the wider world around him.

The griot tradition

Cover of the CD "Kirike" by Kasse Mady Diabate
"The eight songs on this album are wonderful examples of how the ancient tradition of the griot is still relevant today. Not only do the songs serve as a reminder of a people's cultural heritage, they also serve as gentle instructors on being a good member of society," writes Richard Marcus

The musicians accompanying Diabate on "Kirike" (Ballake Sissoko-kora, Lansine Kouyate-balafon and Makan Tounkara-ngoni) are also steeped in Mali's musical traditions. They bring a younger generation's musical influences to bear upon the recordings. Sissoko's partnership with French cellist Vincent Segal (they've recorded two CDs together), is a prime example of this at work. This album was not only born out of their desire to work with Diabate, Segal also produced and contributed cello to some of the songs.

The eight songs on this album are wonderful examples of how the ancient tradition of the griot is still relevant today. Not only do the songs serve as a reminder of a people's cultural heritage, they also serve as gentle instructors on being a good member of society. Tracks 1 and 2, "Simbo" and "Sori", utilise the old griot technique of exemplifying the characteristics of a hunter as an example an audience should do its best to emulate. In the first, the names of the hunter's dogs symbolise patience, endurance and intelligence – qualities that are not only important in a hunter, but in anybody. In the latter, while Diabate follows the same mode, he stresses the attributes of boldness and determination to encourage his listeners to always strive and never give up no matter what obstacles may stand in their way.

Of course the griot doesn't always rely on allegory to teach his lessons on social harmony. With the song "Ko Kuma Magni" (What People Say), Diabate warns listeners of the dangers of listening to idle gossip. The song ends with the line, "someone who is insanely jealous will have a time keeping a companion", reminding us  not only to not trust in rumours, but to keep our emotions and feelings balanced in our dealings with both individuals and the community at large.

However, it is not only specific characteristics or behaviour the griot comments on, he or she also looks at the big picture. In the final song on the album, "Hera" (Living in Peace), Diabate tells the story of two of his predecessors in order to promote the ideal of peace. "I did not know it is so hard to obtain understanding and confidence./We are not here for gold, and still less for money:/understanding is what we wish for: to live in peace."

Superlative musicianship

Naturally Diabate's voice is the central focus of every song. However, the music accompanying him can't be ignored. Not only is the playing superlative, it is a beautiful example of how music can reach out across cultural divides. For while the instruments – save of course the cello – are Malian, what they create will sound familiar to many. The interplay between them is reminiscent of both jazz and Western classical music and other African traditions as well. Instead of locking themselves into merely emulating the music of their ancestors, they have created a sound that will strike chords of recognition with diverse audiences; carrying the messages of their griots to different worlds.

While Diabate sings in Bambara, the most common language in southern Mali, the CD comes with a description of each song and a link to where listeners can read an English translation of the lyrics online. However, even without understanding what he's singing about, the songs are still captivating. Not only does he have a wonderfully expressive and melodic voice that is a joy to listen to, the combination of his vocals and the music are almost hypnotic. Listening, you find yourself drawn into a world of sound that will spur flights of imagination. For even while it lulls the listener into a sense of almost mystical well being, it also stimulates the intellect through the intricacies of the arrangements.

With increasing access to music and culture from around the world, we are gradually becoming aware of the amazing diversity of sound and thought that surrounds us. Even more heartening are the examples of musicians from various backgrounds who not only strive to keep their identities alive, but incorporate other musical traditions into their work in an attempt to make it relevant to contemporary audiences. Kasse Mady Diabate's "Kirike" is one of the best examples of this you'll hear in a long time.

Richard Marcus

© 2015

More on this topic