Kélétigui Diabaté (1931-2012)
Kélétigui Diabaté, one of the greatest figures in Malian contemporary music, passed away in Bamako on the morning of November 30, 2012. He was 81 years old, but his death was sudden and he had been performing as recently as last month.
From 1998 to 2009, Diabaté was a member of Malian guitarist Habib Koité’s band Bamada, and his virtuoso skills on balafón, a type of African xylophone, violin and other instruments never failed to amaze the audience and his soft-spoken charm and endearing grace earned him friends and fans around the globe.
Yet, Diabaté had already been one of Mali’s most revered and accomplished musicians long before he joined Habib Koité’s band. Born in 1931 into one of Mali’s most illustrious musical families, Diabaté not only mastered the playing and construction of balafón, he was also famed as a guitarist and even was known to play saxophone on occasion. In the late 1950s, Diabaté was recruited to establish the Orchestré de la Garde Républicaine (Première Formation), which went on to tour West Africa to great acclaim.
Diabaté was also a founding member of L’Orchestre National “A” de la Republique de Mali (the “A” merely indicating that they were the first band in a series), a band that was conscripted by the government of Mali’s first president, Modibo Keita, on the first day of Mali’s independence from France. The orchestra, led by Diabaté on guitar, was formed as part of cultural policies designed to promote the appreciation of Malian art, and consisted of "musicians sworn to serve their country by contributing with all their genius to the protection and revalorization of Malian musical art". Their only album l’Orchestre National ‘A’ de la Republique de Mali was released around 1970 by the German label Bärenreiter-Musicaphon and is coveted by collectors.
Students from Diabaté’s band went on to form The Rail Band, and Diabaté went on to join the highly influential group Ambassadeurs, with whom he recorded and toured, as did Salif Keita, one of Mali’s great singers. In 1978, during a tour sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, Diabaté had the opportunity to jam on stage with Lionel Hampton in Washington DC. The union of Hampton’s vibraphone with Diabaté’s balafón delighted the audience, and inspired Diabaté to explore jazz influences in his subsequent work.
Diabaté has also performed with griot singers Ami Koita, Tata Bambo and Kandia Kouyaté. Diabaté reunited with Salif Keita in 1989 to promote Keita’s album Ko-Yan on Mango Records, and Diabaté’s masterful balafón work on that album led Keita to explore a more traditional approach on his subsequent album. Over the years, Diabaté has appeared on many albums, including Toumani Diabaté’s Djelika, Zap Mama’s Supermoon, Ketama’s Songhai 2, Bonnie Raitt’s Silver Lining, among others.
When Diabaté accepted Habib Koité’s invitation to join the band Bamada in 1998, the balafón master was in his late sixties, yet he managed to sustain an aggressive and active touring schedule until 2009 when he stopped being a regular member of the live band. During the time he was with Koité, Diabaté was a key part of numerous albums and performances. One of the most special for Diabaté took place in the spring of 2000 when he joined Koité and the Art Ensemble of Chicago to create a extraordinary touring project, The Art Ensemble of Africa.
(Kélétigui Diabaté with his friend Jackson Browne in Los Angeles, 2001)
While Diabaté had been a key musician for others, he did not record an album under his own name until 2004, when Belgian label Contre-Jour produced and released Sandiya.
Kélétigui Diabaté leaves behind a legacy of exceptional music. Diabaté played an important yet under-recognized role in the history of Malian and West African music.