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.
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.
Now he has gone back to his roots, with some crucial outside help. This is an immaculately recorded, intimate set in which Kassé Mady is backed by a classy acoustic band of n’goni, balafon and kora (from the celebrated Ballaké Sissoko). The ancient African instruments are joined, sometimes surprisingly, by delicate cello work from producer Vincent Segal.