Interview: Kassé Mady Diabaté @ Womad (July 2015)

At the age of sixty-six, Kassé Mady Diabaté is one of the living greats of Malian music. His nickname Kassé derives from the Bambara word Kassi, which means to weep, as his beautiful voice is said to make people cry with joy. What an honour it was then to have a short interview with the Malian veteran and hereditary griot just before his entrancing show in WOMAD’s Siam tent late on Friday night.

Taking part in the process were Kassé Mady’s three colleagues – balafon player Lansine Kouyate, kora player Ballaké Sissoko and ngoni player Makan Tounkara. These three band mates and close friends acted as interpreters and translators from Kasse Mady’s native Bambara, into French, then English, all helped along with the assistance of interpretor Gregor from WOMAD’s press office. Kassé Mady talked about his role as a griot and discussed his early career with its Cuban influences. We hope nothing got lost in translation!

First it is important to say that Kassé Mady is not simply a musician. In his culture the role of a griot extends way beyond musicianship and into the realms of peacemaker, oral historian and culture-bearer. A griot must know how to negotiate, counsel and resolve conflicts, sending messages of social harmony to the people. The role of a griot in West African society has no contemporary equivalent in Europe. Kassé Mady Diabaté’s lineage is from the ancient Manding Empire. He told us that he follows in the footsteps of his aunt, who was a great griotte, and the traditional function of the Diabatés of Kéla continues to this day. We were therefore interested to know how the griot tradition is perceived in modern Malian society. Kassé Mady responded with:

“It hasn’t really changed over time. It’s still a really important thing. The griot is there to weigh in as a peacekeeper in family conflicts. It’s someone you go to just for advice, say between a husband and wife, couples, between tribe and tribe, even country and country. So it’s a real peacekeeping role. It’s still like that and people still have that respect for griots. They still see it as something at that level of importance. And because of that young people still have the same respect for it in terms of the cultural side of things.”

This ancient tradition is reflected in the title of Kassé Mady’s latest album Kiriké. This wonderful album goes back to Kassé Mady’s acoustic roots and traditional Malian instruments – the same lineup of musicians as the performance we saw this evening (but without producer Vincent Segal, who also played ‘cello on the album). Kiriké, Kasse Mady told us, is the ceremonial chair saddle that was placed on a horse’s back, bearing the king as he engaged with his people. The griot was there to lend gravitas to the proceedings by singing the king’s praises. Kassé Mady explained:

“Before, when there were no cars all the kings moved around on horseback. The kiriké on the horse’s back is very beautiful, a symbol of dignity and nobility. The king went on horseback and he was accompanied by a griot.”

But despite the fact that these ancient traditions are so embedded in Malian culture, their society is in no way closed to outside influences. Kiriké represents a return to Kassé Mady’s roots after many years exploring varied avenues of music and playing in ensembles from Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra to the AfroCubism project. Indeed, the musical aspect of Kasse Mady’s life is far from being strictly traditional. His career began at a time of great change in Mali. A strange twist of fate had linked the music of Mali with Cuba, an island on the other side of the Atlantic over 7,500 miles away, and it wasn’t just the musical culture that linked the two countries. Mali had gained independence from its French colonial rulers in 1960 and its first prime minister, socialist Modibo Keita, flirted with the idea of communism. The Malian musicians explained to us that Modibo Keita sent envoys from Mali to Cuba at that time, and that musicians were amongst those chosen to go and find out more about the Cuban way of life.

“Modibo Keita sent people to study music in Cuba, but he also sent economists and politicians. He was the Malian prime minister at the time. It was a cultural exchange project. The musicians came back to Mali with information about Cuban music, and there was a real flair of interest in Cuban music in the 1960s. Only seven musicians went to Cuba, but once they returned home the music they learned spread very fast. It was a long time ago, but it still has a big influence today.”

We asked Kassé Mady how those musical envoys to Cuba had influenced his own early career in the 1970s.

“When I was young I learned many Cuban rhythms like salsa. I was already singing in a group but I was asked to join another one. There was such a craze for the Cuban music that the group had a Spanish name – Las Maravillas de Mali. Afterwards they changed it from the Spanish title to National Badema du Mali [National Family of Mali]. This is because the authorities wanted to hear a more Malian influence in our music. They liked my repertoire of songs so I was chosen as singer of the band. The band played a lot of my pieces and they also played a lot of Cuban music. Then they realised there were links between the traditional African rhythms and the new rhythms and they started to explore those links more and more, so a kind of relationship was found between Cuban music and African music.”

Due to the amount of time spent translating from English to French, to Bambara, back to French and finally back to English we were beginning to run out of time in this five-way dialogue, and the four musicians needed to prepare for their performance. So we rounded off the conversation by asking Kassé Mady if he is proud of Malian music and his own musical contribution to his country’s achievements.

“Yes, Malian music is very important, and I am as proud of my role as a griot as I am of my musical achievements. Being a griot is such an important thing, and it’s given me the opportunity to help so many people. The music has spiraled on from my general role as a griot and opened up opportunities for sharing my culture with other people all over the world, but it all goes back to the tradition of the griot. However, I have a very personal connection to music. Everything depends on the exact moment. Some days I listen only to traditional music, sometimes modern music, but because my musical personality is so connected with real life my inspiration comes from everywhere.”

We ended our conversation then, and Kassé Mady’s cold, hunched figure shuffled slowly off to prepare for his performance. Half an hour later he emerged into the bright colourful lights of the Siam Tent stage, transformed like a butterfly. Resplendent in his traditional robes he sang for the next hour in his beautiful voice that made us cry.

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