Keletigui Diabate - Sandiya
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Kélétigui Diabaté
Contre-Jour (

cd cover A sticker on the outside of Kélétigui Diabaté's CD proclaims him "the unsung hero of West African music." In this case, it's a description I'm inclined to believe. Several years ago, I went with two friends to see Habib Koite play in Chicago. Koite was clearly the darling of the hipsters in the crowd. We were enraptured by one of Habib's accompanists, a middle aged man fixed behind his balafon (an all-wood West African xylophone). After a sparkling solo, he held his mallets up in (we thought) timidly pleased acknowledgement. Before the next song, though, a stage hand brought him a curious shaped case, out of which he pulled an electric violin. It seemed terribly incongruous with our image of a sweet older man trying to keep up with the young hipsters. At this point, we decided we had to meet him, and after the concert we found him sitting alone backstage. We said hello and told him how much we enjoyed the show; he accepted our compliments, pointed upstairs to Koite's dressing room, and said, "He's up there," not expecting that we actually wanted to talk to him.

Diabaté was indeed a new member of Koite's band, having joined in 1998. But he was not an obscure musician plucked from anonymity by Koite. Diabaté has been a warhorse of Malian music for over 40 years, playing with the Orchestra Nationale 'A,' Les Ambassadeurs, Ami Koita, Tata Bambo Kouyaté, Kandia Kouyaté, Salif Keďta, Toumani Diabaté, and of course Habib Koita. In all this time, though, he has never released any titles under his own name until now. Sandiya means "good year" in Bamanankan, and it was in fact a good year for both Mali's farmers and, with this release, for her music fans.

Diabaté's connections in the world of African music are audible in every track, though, with collaborations with many of the aforementioned artists. Five tracks including the opener were recorded with his son, Fassery Diabaté. Habib Koite and the Ensemble Instrumental du Mali (mislabeled in the liner notes as the "Ensemble Traditionnel du Mali") each pitched in on two tracks.

Diabaté is a multi-instrumentalist, but his balafon is featured on Sandiya. His style is both pensive and light, and imminently self-assured. The album opens with a Malian standard, "Djanjo," dedicated to the ancient Malian hunter Fakoly. The delicate staccato notes of Diabaté's balafon are seductive and almost sedating - this is true of all the numbers recorded with his son Fassery, which highlight the delicate interweaving of the two instrumentalists. The best cuts are those featuring Diabaté in duets. Diawoye Diarra opens "Séné" ("farming") with the airy sound of the Fula flute and open-throated vocal cries, joined by Diabaté with a textured melody that recalls North Africa. The only flaw with the song is its length, just under 3 minutes. Also not to miss is Diabaté's combo with guitarist Djelymady Tounkara of the Super Rail Band. Tounkara's guitar lines - which are pretty tight on their own - take on a sinewy, almost resiny character over Diabaté's staccato balafon. The contrast is striking, and gives the listener pause, as if the guitar were a new instrument in the musical universe. Other tracks include the vocal efforts of the Ensemble Instrumental ("Djarabi" and "Sounjata"), Many Diabaté ("Sambakoro"), and Diabaté's daughters Ata and Bintou ("Yafa"). Of the vocal tracks, the best by far is "Yafa" ("Forgiveness"). The Diabaté sisters use a lower register that doesn't overwhelm their father's efforts on balafon; the combination is ideal for a short song begging forgiveness.

Kélétigui Diabaté's time for superstardom had probably passed. But happily, he will not just bathe in the reflected light of the likes of Habib Koite and Toumani Diabaté. With this gem of an album, he's producing a little light of his own. Hopefully his children will help him to keep it shining. - Craig Tower

CD available from cdRoots

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