Featuring Hawa Kassé Diabaté, Mamadou Kouyaté and Fodé Lassana Diabaté, Trio da Kali represents a new generation’s inheritance of the Malian griot music tradition. Hailing from two of the famed griot families – the Diabatés and Kouyatés – these musicians are pushing the boundaries of traditional practice into the space of cross-cultural and cross-genre collaboration. It is fitting that Trio da Kali features the children of some of the great griot talents of the last few decades — for that is how this music moves, from one generation to the next, at each turn maintaining a commitment to the tradition while steadily evolving the form to accommodate the possibilities of the contemporary moment.
Trio da Kali itself emerged as a collaboration with the English ethnomusicologist, record producer and radio presenter Lucy Durán, who brought the group together under the auspices of the Aga Khan Music Initiative, a project designed to “promote revitalization of cultural heritage both as a source of livelihood for musicians and as a means to strengthen pluralism in nations where it is challenged by social, political, and economic constraints.” Durán brought her deep knowledge of Mandé music practices and her longstanding relationships with Malian musicians to bear in assembling Trio da Kali as a griot ‘super-group.’ Their splendid 2017 recording Ladlilikan puts the trio in conversation with San Francisco-based string quartet, Kronos Quartet, who are known for innovating their own western art music tradition.
From their Malian roots, the group builds upon the history and culture of the Mande people. Unique to West Africa, griots are traditional storytellers and singers. Originating in the thirteenth-century Mande empire in modern day Mali, griots have played a important role in maintaining social order and cultural traditions. Griots (or their female counterparts, griottes) served as mediators between nobles and amongst peoples, singing heros’ praises and accompanying important individuals in political and social practices. While the nineteenth century slave trade, the decline of the Mande empire, and the establishment of European colonialism changed the role and habits of griots, these storytellers always played a prominent role in Mande societies.
Griots provided music, dance, the recital of genealogies, and praise for heroic deeds at religious and social ceremonies in Mali and across West Africa. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, then, the griot has served as historian, storyteller, musician, and religious and social mediator. Griot families such as the Diabatés and Kouyatés, from which the Trio da Kali’s members hail, have passed down their knowledge and art across the generations. Such strong hereditary structures among griot families have helped to establish a coherent repertoire of stories, practices, and instruments for griots to use. The balafon (a hammered 22-key xylophone), kora (a 22-string bridge harp), and ngoni (a lute often claimed to be a forerunner to the banjo) have been passed down among generations of griots and are thought to be their exclusive cultural inheritance.Trio da Kali’s arrangement of balafon, ngoni and voice is based on an ancient arrangement for a griot music ensemble.
Trio da Kali features balafonist Fodé Lassana Diabaté, bass ngoni player Mamadou Kouyaté and vocalist Hawa ‘Kassé Mady’ Diabaté’s. Each of these accomplished musicians originate from a storied griot lineage. Hawa ‘Kassé Mady’ Diabaté is the daughter of one of the great voices of the Malian griot vocal tradition, Kassé Mady Diabaté. Diabaté the elder spent a decade in Paris in the 1990s before returning to Mali around the turn of the millennium. He sang on many celebrated recordings including Toumani Diabaté and the Symmetric Orchestra’s Boulevard D’Independence, the Afrocubism project which brought together Malian and Cuban musicians, and collaborations with flamenco group Ketama and American bluesman Taj Mahal.
Hawa Diabaté is taking her first major strides as of late into her father’s footsteps. In 2015 she recorded with Trio da Kali for the first time on an EP released by World Circuit Records. Two years later, she is in fine form as the vocalist on Trio da Kali’s stunning collaboration with Kronos Quartet, Ladilikan (released in 2017 on World Circuit).
Mamadou Kouyaté, the young bass ngoni player for Trio do Kali is also the child of a celebrated griot musician. His father, Bassekou Kouyaté, has been the most visible international champion of the Malian ngoni tradition over the past decade, offering his own wah-wah laden Hendrix-esque flair to the mix. Kouyaté the elder appeared alongside Kassé Mady Diabaté on Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra album as well as on the Taj Mahal record Kulanjan. Bassekou Kouyate was also one of the pivotal players in the posthumously released Ali Farka Touré album Savane, having been a regular member of Farka Touré’s touring ensemble. Kouyate went on to release several celebrated records with his band Ngoni Ba, including the Grammy nominated I Speak Fula in 2009. Mamadou Kouyaté cut his teeth playing in his father’s band before stepping more recently into the spotlight with Trio da Kali.
In Trio da Kali, Mamadou Kouyaté covers the low end, playing bass ngoni, a oblong lute of larger stature than the standard ngoni, also strung with thicker strings and played through a bass amp. Its unique voice conjures a sound somewhere between a fretless bass and a slide guitar – a gestalt of percussive attack and blunt low end punch.
The trio is anchored by balafon virtuoso (and the elder of the bunch) Fodé Lassana Diabaté. Diabaté has lent his expert musicianship to many splendid projects over the decades including the Symmetric Orchestra and Afrocubism records, as well as the Kulanjan collaboration with Taj Mahal. In the setting of Trio da Kali, it is the sound of Diabaté’s balafon – a 22-key wooden xylophone with buzzing gourds mounted below the keys as amplifiers – that provides the foundation for the group. His accompaniment patterns propel the music forward, his lyrical melodic interventions offer diversion and redirection from the steadily pushing groove.
Though the Trio da Kali’s musical instruments are traditional, the music they produce is a unique blend of traditional stories and sounds with new and innovative techniques and styles.
Trio da Kali has taken to blending their understanding of the griot’s social role with modern expectations of performer-audience interaction. Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté dances, sways, and moves around the stage with the music and the group awaits audience members’ interaction. Reviewers unfamiliar with the griot practice of collecting donations from appreciative patrons have noted their surprise when audience members walked through the aisle of a Western-style performance space to hand the performers a few dollar bills. While some may misperceive this as disrespectful, it is in keeping with the history of the griot to dance along with the music, contribute money to the performers, and show your appreciation through more than just applause.
The Trio da Kali is hard to understand without knowing the history of the West African griot. Indeed, the group’s very name is drawn from their griot roots. “Da kali,” in fact, means to “swear an oath,” and represents the pledge the band members have made to their art and harkens to the pledges griots would make to pre-colonial Malian rulers whom they served.Understanding the group’s unique griot heritage and the Trio’s blend of traditional and modern modes of performance and music allows the audience to appreciate them for more than just their catchy songs.
Eric Charry, Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 41-43.
Barbara G. Hoffman, Griots at War: Conflict, Conciliation, and Caste in Mande (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001), 11.
For more on the griot’s role in West Africa, you can check out this TedX talk about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdrPmZwsXiM.
Patricia Tang, “Reclaiming Ancient Traditions,” in Eric Charry, African Expressive Cultures: Hip Hop Africa: New African Music in a Globalizing World (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, Christa Caggiano, “’Trio da Kali’ makes global music connections,” The Brandeis Hoot, March 7, 2014. http://www.thebrandeishoot.com/articles/13980#sthash.4zPJ9iEs.dpuf.