In a world where anyone can become a celebrity or musician and the love of music can often be confused with a love for fame, one man stands out. Cheick Hamala Diabate is a Malian musician from Kita Mali in the southwest who currently resides in Washington D.C and will grace the Preservation Hall Stage Friday night at the Voodoo Music Experience.
Cheick (pronounced “shake”) is a West African historian, Griot, master of the ngoni, and sought-after lecturer, performer, and storyteller. Coming from a long ancestry of Griots (traditional, well-respected oral storytellers from West Africa), Cheick’s musicianship is not about notoriety or money, but about telling stories and breeding notions of peace and respect. “When you play music, you educate people. It’s about keeping myself; you don’t want to forget yourself,” he explains.
While living in D.C., Cheick spends his time meeting with other members of the local Malian community or touring with embassy officials. As Griot, he is sometimes asked to meet with couples before marriage, or before the naming of a new baby. “People respect and trust the Griot, they want to see him,” says Cheick. “Before making important decisions people see the Griot. We are a very, very old culture and we didn’t have books to hold our history, so the Griot did.”
Cheick has grown up playing the ngoni, an important instrument of the Malian Griot and an ancestor of the banjo. Since discovering the banjo, though, Cheick has taken it upon himself to master that as well. He will most likely play both instruments during his trip to New Orleans this week. In addition to the 7 p.m. Friday slot at Voodoo, Cheick will perform at Chickie Wah Wah with Toubab Krewe at 10 p.m.
This won’t be the first time Malian-born Cheick and the Malian-influenced Toubab Krewe will perform together. “They’re great guys,” says Cheick. “They know and respect the culture. I’ve played with them before and look forward to it again.” On Saturday night, Cheick heads to Frenchmen Street to play two sets at Snug Harbor, at 8 and 10 p.m.
This marks Cheick’s first time playing Voodoo, but to him coming to New Orleans is a little bit like coming home. “New Orleans and Mali – they’re very similar,” he shares. “New Orleans is a city for music, and my village is a city for music, so I’m very happy to come back.”