Cheick Hamala Diabate
2008-09 Folklife Apprenticeship Award recipient
Born in Mali and based in Maryland, Cheick Hamala Diabate is a steward of the 800-year-old West African griot tradition. Oral historians, singers and musicians, griots belong to a special social caste and are part of a hereditary lineage passed from parent to child. The son of two prominent griot families, Cheick was trained from birth in oral history, song, and music. Under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather, the griot Demba Tounkara, Cheick was taught, and soon mastered, the ngoni, a traditional stringed lute considered one of the ancestors of the banjo. After studying at the National Institute of Arts in Bamako, the capital of Mali, as a teenager, he began an international touring career.
In 1995, Cheick came to the United States to pursue a career as a performer, lecturer, and instructor. Since arriving in the U.S., he has expanded his sound and style. Most notably, he has taken up the banjo, placing the instrument in a traditional griot musical context. His live band melds the ancient and the modern with an electric sound and a deeply rooted spirit. Lyrically, his words tell the tale of Mali and its people, or offer praise to those who are worthy of such things, but musically, the band builds a sound formed at the crossroads where Mali meets Maryland, with musical influences hailing from far and near.