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Kimi Djabaté by Rita Carmo

Kimi Djabaté was raised in Tabato, Guinea-Bissau, a village known for its griots, hereditary singer-poets whose songs of praise and tales of history and legends play an essential role in Africa’s musical life. Centuries ago, Djabaté’s ancestors, a wandering troupe of musicians from Mali, traveled to the region and the king of Guinea so loved their songs he invited them to stay and offered them the territory of Tabato. Ever since, the area has been a recognized center for music, dance, handcrafts and other creative arts.


Djabaté was born into an impoverished but musically accomplished family in Tabato on January 20, 1975. His parents gave him his first balafón when he was three years old to keep him entertained while his mother cooked and did housework. Soon recognized as a prodigy, Djabaté began playing at weddings and baptisms at the age of eight and was sent to a nearby village to study the kora a few years later. His early introduction to a variety of traditional instruments laid the foundation for his later mastery of the guitar and skill with a range of percussion instruments. Djabaté’s talents proved both a gift and a burden, as his family often forced him to sing and dance against his will, and he had little time to partake in the carefree fun and games of other children his age.


In 1994, when he was just nineteen, Djabaté joined the national music and dance ensemble of Guinea-Bissau on their tour of Europe. Following the tour, Djabaté made the difficult decision not to return to Africa and instead settled in Lisbon, Portugal, where he forged connections in the local music scene and further developed his unique, personal sound. Throughout his years in Europe, Djabaté collaborated with many other exceptional musicians, including Mory Kanté, Waldemar Bastos and Netos de Gumbé, among others.


Djabaté’s parents and uncles provided the young phenom with excellent training in traditional Mandingo music, but Djabaté was also interested in popular African genres such as the local dance music style gumbé, Nigerian Afrobeat and Cape Verdean morna, not to mention western jazz and blues.


In 2005, Djabaté independently released his first solo album, Teriké, followed by Karam in 2009, which was released by Cumbancha and met with resounding praise. His third album, Kanamalu, came out in 2016. Djabaté’s albums pay tribute to his griot heritage and the spirit of Africa, laying a foundation for his latest musical masterpiece, Dindin, scheduled for release by Cumbancha on February 24, 2023.


Recently, Djabaté has worked with the pop star Madonna, who moved to Lisbon in 2017 and become entranced with the vibrant Afro-Portuguese music scene. She credits Djabaté with introducing her to the distinctive sound of gumbé music, which she then became committed to sharing with her millions of fans. In 2019, Djabaté was a featured singer on her song “Ciao Bella,” and continues to strengthen his friendship with Madonna through their mutual love of African rhythms.


The central themes of Djabaté’s music are the joys and challenges of life in Africa, from freedom and poverty to the rights of women and children and the many forms of love. Continuously optimistic about the power of music and its message to create a better future for Africans, Djabaté’s magical songs remain uplifting and hopeful even as they reflect on contemporary struggles and challenges. An expression of his griot roots, Djabaté pays tribute to the people, soul and spirit of Africa that is at the heart of his music.

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