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Carrying the kora 

Durham's new Grammy nominee and his 21 strings

His ancestors were the voices of kings. His surname identifies him as a member of a musical family that can trace its genealogy to the 13th century, a lineage of storytellers, singers and musicians, known as jelis, or griots, on which royalty relied to pass their decrees to the people. Mamadou Diabate is the latest member of his family to carry on the tradition.

click to enlarge Mamadou Diabate
  • Mamadou Diabate
"My role in the griot today in the United States is to be a musician," Mamadou says by phone from New York City. "I have a kora--it's a family instrument, passed down from generation to generation."

It's a somewhat disjointed conversation. Mamadou, a Mali native who lives in Durham, is maneuvering around New York City and has to put the call on hold several times to concentrate on his driving. "I have to be careful with the police," he laughs.

Adhering to the rules is an important part of the jeli-griot tradition, too. Mamadou is a historian as well as a storyteller, a keeper of his Malian culture, and his ancestors followed strict traditions. Nowadays, things have eased up somewhat.

"You're allowed to be a musician," he says, chuckling. "All of my generation embraced the urge to play music."

Mamadou's urges led him to play the kora, a 21-stringed instrument made from a calabash gourd. It's played like a flamenco guitar but produces the sound of a harp. It's a difficult instrument to master, and even harder to build. But each player must build his own. There are no kora kits in stores.

"All kora players have different hands. So whatever position is easy for you, you have to build your kora that kind of way. My kora is different. My kora has a big neck. You have to have more strong hands to push strings. I like a big sound, a big bass line in my kora," he says. "I don't think there is any store for the kora anywhere in the world. You go to market to buy gourds. Go to a place to get a cow skin. Then you can build it."

A kora takes three weeks to one month to build, and Mamadou likens it to building a house in piecemeal fashion. When it's finished, it resembles a prehistoric animal with vertebrae exposed, fishing line instead of traditional antelope hair for strings and leather tuning rings wrapped around a hardwood neck. "We call them pullets," he explains. "You pull up, you get sharp. You pull down, you get flat."

Although making the instrument is a solitary affair, leaning how to play it is all about family. Mamadou's grandfather, father Djelimory and cousin Toumani are all well-known kora players. Mamadou got his initial training from his father, who taught him how to tune the kora when he was 4.

By the time Mamadou was old enough to attend school, he was practicing so much his mother took the instrument away, fearing it would interfere with his schoolwork. He promptly built another. By the time he was 15, he had left school and was well established as a local musician, winning first prize in a regional kora competition. Then, at 16, he began studying with his cousin Toumani.

"He's the one who taught me how to play. It's a family instrument, but you have to go outside your experience to hear other kora players, to see what styles are like for other people," he explains.

Mamadou first came to the States in 1997. "I was like 22 years old. Then with my physical talents, I introduced my career, my self. Improved more until today I create my own style and become known as a world music demonstrator when I release my solo album."

That album was 2000's Tunga,an unlikely mix of cultures and genres.

"I take some Chicago blues and put that to traditional Mandinga music," Mamadou says of the cut "Dounuya." "To put a vision in it, to understand about the blues, provide the world how we griot play our music."

His next release, 2005's Behmanka, was nominated for a Grammy this yearin theBest Traditional World Music category, but he was beaten by his own cousin, Toumani, for a collaboration with Ali Farka Touré. Mamadou has done some heavy collaborating himself, working with fellow Malian Angélique Kidjo on Black Ivory Soul and Oyaya. He's also worked with Eric Bibb and father Leon on A Family Affair, and played kora on Taj Mahal's "Lovin' In My Baby's Eyes" on Bibb's 2005 Telarc release, Friends. He's also toured France and played Lincoln Center with Mahal. Blues holds a special interest for Mamadou.

"Back home, some Africans say blues come from Mali. But actually, we bring the blues musicians with us," he says. "Toumani or me, any of us, we came from a long line of musicians, so there is a connection, back our ancestor way, you know."

Listening is the key to communicating musically, Mamadou believes, and he feels he can play in several genres because he listens to it all. But, in the end, it all comes back to family. All along, Mamadou listened closest to cousin Toumani.

"Before I came here, he did a lot more for a lot of young people today who are doing something," Mamadou says. "And I've become stronger for myself for that."

Mamadou Diabate plays Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival on Saturday, April 22 from 1:15-2:30 p.m. on Meadow Stage and Sunday, April 23 from 4:30-6 p.m. on Meadow Stage.

More by Grant Britt

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