Cheick Hamala Diabaté
Griot and Musician living in USA
Cheick comes from Mali in Western Africa where at age 12 he was invited to attend the National Institute of Arts in Bamako, Mali’s capital city. At the institute, Cheick studied music, graphic arts, cinema, literature and theatre. After graduating, he began his professional performing arts career. Arriving in Washington, DC in 1995, Cheick has been performing for audiences, choreographing productions, and instructing the young and old about West Africa. Touring solo and with his band, he travels around the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia.
Cheick is a griot, a member of an ancient tradition started more than seven centuries ago during the Malinke Empire, which once encompassed Senegal, Timbuktu, Gao, and parts of Côte d’Ivoire. At one time, every village in West Africa had a griot. Griot’s hold the memory of their West African society and it is through their words that the Mali people learn who they are and about their history. Some griot’s, like Cheick, are musicians, singing their stories to the people. Respected as a leader in society, the griot wears many hats as the oral historian, holy man, musician, ambassador, and storyteller. Above all else, the griots seek peace and harmony in society. They give lessons to their people and in times of despair, people come to the griot for guidance about a personal challenge or a larger conflict. According to Cheick, the Mali president does not make a decision without consulting with the griot. They are known to bring peace agreements between countries such as Mali and Guinea. And it was the griots who successfully mediated a political truce after the March coup d’état in 2012, where low-ranking officers and enlisted men, supported by weapons sent from Libya, overthrew the Mali government.
For more than 20 years, Mali has experienced tremendous turmoil that has upset Cheick’s mission to spread peace and harmony. During the 1991 Alliance for Democracy (ADEMA) rebellion when Malians fought to overthrow its dictator General Moussa Traoré. Cheick and his band mates traveled several hundred miles to perform in the north. When they arrived, they found themselves in the middle of a violent conflict and were told there was a curfew. They would not perform a show that night. Fearful, Cheick and his mates blocked the front door of their room with furniture. When they woke up the next day, they were told they would not perform that night either. They left angry and frustrated, driving hundreds of miles back home, never playing their music.
Today’s conflict in the north where Islamists impose Shariah law and in the south where the Bamako-based Islamist movement is growing. They torture and kill musicians. This story is recently told in the powerful, award-winning film THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST, released in 2015. The Islamists oppose the griots animist beliefs and practices making it unsafe for griots to be in the region. One day when it is safe and there is peace in his homeland, Cheick will return where he will live, perform, and teach at his school a new generation to play the n’goni, kora, and balafon, the traditional instruments of Mali.
Cheick has inspired many including high-ranking dignitaries and officials in the United States and abroad. He has played with legendary musicians such as Bela Fleck and Corey Harris, and saved many marriages. Collaborating with banjo player Bob Carlin on “From Mali to America”, they were honored with a Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album.
Our project is a dream effort for Cheick. He says that it realizes all that he believes, connecting musicians to bring peace and harmony all over the world.