Concert preview: Malian minstrel has the ear of his community preview

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Cheick Hamala Diabate's grandfather had three wives. He won them all with his musicianship, his fingers moving so swiftly across the ngoni that fathers gave up their claim to a bride price. "The chief of the village would say, 'You play so well, I'll give you my daughter for free,' " said Mr. Diabate.

But Demba Tounkara was more than just a Malian minstrel: He was royalty. "He was chief of the village, chief of the train station, chief of the cantons, chief of the griots," said Mr. Diabate.

Cheick Hamala Diabate

With A.T.S.

Where: Thunderbird Cafe, Lawrenceville.

When: 8 tonight.

Tickets: $12, $15;

When he was growing up, Mr. Diabate would follow the dusty red road out of his village, walking five miles to his grandfather's house. There, he learned to play the ngoni, a West African lute made of cow skin and hollowed-out wood.

On Thursday, Mr. Diabate will bring the sound of the ngoni to the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville. He will play both songs he learned from his grandfather and his own compositions. But even those songs that were penned in 747s and that deal with 21st-century headlines are, for Mr. Diabate, part of the centuries-old griot tradition.

The griots are a Malian lineage of musician-storyteller-mediators, and Mr. Diabate is the griot extraordinaire of Washington, D.C. When a Malian-Washingtonian man wants to get married, he asks Mr. Diabate to smooth the way with the father of the bride-to-be. When a baby is born, Mr. Diabate is called to sing for the child. When the Malian embassy organizes an event, Mr. Diabate is called to speak and play for the guests. And when there is a conflict -- a couple who want a divorce, a fight between friends -- Mr. Diabate is called to make peace. Little happens in D.C.'s Malian community without Mr. Diabate's input.

"Malians don't listen to what's said in the newspapers, they don't listen to what's said on TV, but when they hear that a griot is playing at 8, they get there at 5," he said in French. He remembered an HIV-prevention campaign in which the usual channels of mass media failed to get Malians to use condoms. Only when the griots began talking and singing about the disease did the message begin to catch on.

Mr. Diabate's songs are no less political since he moved to the United States in 1995. Two years ago, armed rebels in the northern tip of Mali waged war on the government in an attempt to gain independence. Radical Islamists also began to fight both the government and the Touareg nationalists, forming a deadly triangle that killed civilians and fighters alike.

In response, Mr. Diabate has begun to incorporate more sounds from the country's northern desert into his music. During his childhood in the southwestern town of Kita, someone would get up and switch off the radio as soon as a song from the north came on. He wants to reconcile the country's factions. "A single country is indivisible," he said. "We need to understand each other."

To build that understanding, Mr. Diabate uses the brittle sound of the ngoni. His music is at once driving and meditative, danceable and strangely beautiful.

Like Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure, Mr. Diabate emphasizes the connection between West African and American music. On some songs, a Hendrix-like guitar-line tears through the ngoni riffs. And sometimes Mr. Diabate exchanges his main instrument for a banjo -- "grandson to the ngoni" -- which he plucks with his thumb and forefinger to play syncopated runs. It is about as American-sounding as a meal of fonio with maafe stew, but it works.

"You don't need to go to therapy when you listen to Cheick Hamala's music," he said. "It's better than therapy."

Eric Boodman:

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