Kasse Mady Diabate
The Manding Empire was founded in the 13th Century by the emperor Sunjata. It swept from one end of West Africa to the other, from Casamance on the Atlantic coast all the way to Burkina Faso, thousands of miles to the east. Sunjata used a hitherto unheard of weapon to bind all his disparate peoples together: music. Music became a formidable political tool and turned the hereditary Manding musicians or djelis (griots) into a powerful caste. Today, having survived centuries of change and turmoil, that caste is still flourishing. Drawing on themes as old as the Empire itself and melodies learned in childhood, the modern griots still mediate for social order. It explains how an artist such as Kassé Mady Diabaté can rise to such a degree of excellence and become a national treasure in Mali.
Kassé Mady was born in 1949 in the village Kéla. His aunt was the great griotte Siramori Diabaté, while his grandfather was known as ‘Jeli Fama’, which means ‘The Great Griot’, thanks to the gripping quality of his voice. When Kassé Mady was 7 years old (a significant age in Manding culture), the elders of the family, including Siramori, realised that he had inherited his grandfather’s vocal genius. They schooled him and encouraged him, until he was able to launch his own career. He would go on to play a role in the most innovative moments in Malian music over the next five decades, first in his own country and later with landmark international collaborations.
In 1970 he became lead singer of the Orchestre Régional Super Mandé de Kangaba. Kassé Mady’s remarkable singing won the group the national Biennale music competition in the Malian capital Bamako. The festival had been set up by the government, as part of a Cultural Authenticity initiative across all of the newly independent West African states, encouraging musicians to return to their cultural heritage. It was at the Biennale that Kassé Mady caught the attention of Las Maravillas de Mali, a group of musicians who had studied music in Cuba and returned to Mali to perform their interpretations of Cuban classics. The Government were putting pressure on the group to incorporate a more Malian repertoire and so they invited Kassé Mady to join them as lead singer. With their young vocalist at the helm, the Maravillas, later known as Badema National, achieved huge success throughout West Africa, with songs sung in a Cuban style, but with a new Manding touch.
In 1988 Kassé Mady left Mali and the Badema National behind and moved to Paris, where he recorded his first solo album for the Senegalese record producer Ibrahima Sylla. He spent the next ten years in Paris, recording Fode, then Kéla Tradition, an acoustic album of Kéla jeli songs. Moving back to Mali in the late 1990s, several collaborations followed, many of which have become landmark recordings: Songhai 2, the album he made with the flamenco group Ketama and Toumani Diabaté, and Koulandjan, on which he collaborated with Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabaté, an album which was famously cited by Barack Obama as one of his favourite albums of all time. Both of these albums were produced by Joe Boyd and released on his Hannibal label. Collaborations with Toumani Diabaté continued and he starred in Toumani’s Symmetric Orchestra and Afrocubism projects, both recorded by World Circuit.
Solo projects over the past decade have included the acoustic album Kassi Kassé, produced in 2002 by Lucy Duran, and Manden Djeli Kan, released on Universal France in 2009 and garnering 4 and 5 star reviews: ‘the star is always the brilliant vocalist’, said The Times reviewer, while the 5 star review in the Financial Times said simply ‘Time stops still’.