Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Malian Minstrel Has the Ear of His Community

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Malian Minstrel Has the Ear of His Community

Article excerpt

Cheick Hamala Diabate's grandfather had three wives. He won them all with his musicianship, his fingers moving so swiftly across the ngoni that fathers gave up their claim to a bride price. "The chief of the village would say, 'You play so well, I'll give you my daughter for free,' " said Mr. Diabate.

But Demba Tounkara was more than just a Malian minstrel: He was royalty. "He was chief of the village, chief of the train station, chief of the cantons, chief of the griots," said Mr. Diabate.

When he was growing up, Mr. Diabate would follow the dusty red road out of his village, walking five miles to his grandfather's house. There, he learned to play the ngoni, a West African lute made of cow skin and hollowed-out wood.

On Thursday, Mr. Diabate will bring the sound of the ngoni to the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville. He will play both songs he learned from his grandfather and his own compositions. But even those songs that were penned in 747s and that deal with 21st- century headlines are, for Mr. Diabate, part of the centuries-old griot tradition.

The griots are a Malian lineage of musician-storyteller- mediators, and Mr. Diabate is the griot extraordinaire of Washington, D.C. When a Malian-Washingtonian man wants to get married, he asks Mr. Diabate to smooth the way with the father of the bride-to-be. When a baby is born, Mr. Diabate is called to sing for the child. When the Malian embassy organizes an event, Mr. Diabate is called to speak and play for the guests. And when there is a conflict -- a couple who want a divorce, a fight between friends -- Mr. Diabate is called to make peace. Little happens in D.C.'s Malian community without Mr. Diabate's input.

"Malians don't listen to what's said in the newspapers, they don't listen to what's said on TV, but when they hear that a griot is playing at 8, they get there at 5," he said in French. …

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