There’s very little information (and no photos I could find) about (Grand) Papa Diabaté, at least on the interweb. Which is a shame, because he’s basically the father of Guinean guitar music, which makes him essentially one of the grandfathers of the vast and mindblowing genre of Afropop. To put things in perspective, he’s like Doc Watson, Andrés Segovia, or Django Reinhardt; he did things on the guitar that nobody had ever done before. And he taught his brother and many others how to transfer onto guitar the traditional, centuries-old melodies they had learned on kora.
The music — o, how to describe it? It’s like two or three voices are singing the most amazing thing and repeating it at different intervals, exploring every possible permutation and direction without losing the connection to each other or the source. Like Fahey in some ways, Phillip Glass in others, free-jazz and choral music in yet other ways. Polyrhythm is everywhere. Melody is everywhere. Chordal progression is virtually absent. The texture is rough and raw, much more so than the polished (though still awesome) electric guitar music you may have heard coming out of Africa in the past 30 years. It’s not strictly solo, there’s often guitar duos or singing or kora playing, but it’s always acoustic and achieves that rare combination of virtuosity and relaxedness. The effect? Well, time ceases to exist pretty quick, let me tell you. You’re caught halfway between dream and dance. I suppose in this sense, it could aproach trance (the state, not the music). Peculiarly, by engaging the senses and filling the brain with all these wonderful overlapping patterns, the mind vanishes of its own accord. Leave it to the Africans: brilliant!
I found this information in the liner notes of an album by his family’s group African Virtuosos:
In the late 1950s, as most African nations were gaining their political independence, Papa Diabate (born in Faranah, Guinea, 1936) was developing a new single-note style of African guitar playing based on using a plectrum rather than the thumb and index finger technique used throughout Africa. Having learned his scales and other European musical techniques at the conservatory of music in Dakar, Papa set about merging those techniques with Guinean music to create an original guitar style that could cut through and help power the brass-based dance orchestras that were on the rise. He may indeed have been the first of his generation in Guinea to play the electric guitar. Certainly he was the most prominent. The list of electric guitarists who cite him as their inspiration and teacher includes the best that Guinea had to offer in the 1960s and 70s: Manfila Kante, who ended up in Mali co-leading Les Ambassadeurs with vocalist Salif Keita, Sekou “Bembeya” Diabate of Bembeya Jazz (no immediate relation, although they can trace their connection generations back to two brothers), and Papa’s younger brother Sekou “Docteur” Diabate, who was the soloist with Bala et ses Balladins, one of the top Guinean national orchestras.Although Papa Diabate trained the initial generation of Guinean electric guitarists, he himself rarely recorded commercially in his early years. Diabate was a strong individualist and ultimately did not get along with the Sekou Touré regime in Guinea, the one that installed the extensive network of regional and national orchestras that established Guinea as a leader in government-patronized modern dance music. What may be his first commercial recording, an extraordinary 17-minute acoustic guitar duet made when he was in his mid-30s with his younger brother Sekou “Docteur,” is included as the last track on this CD, and is a true gem. Initially issued on the LP “Discotheque 70”, featuring some of the best music the state Syliphone label had to offer in 1970, this was the first installment of an ensemble that ultimately came to be known as the “African Virtuoses” or “Les Frères Diabate”. After a few more isolated selections issued on the Syliphone “Discotheque 71” and “Discotheque 72” LPs, Papa Diabate’s recording career was quiet for over two decades. In the late 1990s he was coaxed out of retirement and recorded on the Popular African Music label again (this one).
The Diabate brothers are by birth jelis, hereditary professional musicians who trace their lineage back to the founding of the 13th century Mali empire, and are what the early French travelers to the region called griots. The Diabate brothers, however, were not practicing griots in the sense of playing for traditional events and engaging in the art of praise-singing. Their father Sidikiba Diabate (not to be confused with kora player Sidiki Diabate, father of Malian kora player Toumani Diabate) was a renowned musician who pioneered the use of the guitar in Guinea in the 1920s and set the model for them as guitarists. Sidikiba understood how traditional music worked and was entrusted by president Sekou Touré with forming the first national instrumental ensemble of Guinea at the dawn of independence. The Diabate brothers inherited this ancient tradition, normally played on the kora, balafon (xylophone), and koni (lute), but used the guitar as their vehicle of expression and Papa Diabate is largely credited with bringing this tradition into the modern brass orchestras that flourished after independence.
Papa plays lead backed by Sekou playing clear arpeggios or bass lines throughout. Papa does not display the kind of speed that marks younger brother Abdoulaye, but rather specializes in an intensely personal and very deliberate melodic sensibility.
1 Mamaya, 14ème Partie – Diabaté – 10:14
2 Mami Wata – Traditional – 9:40
3 Nanfoulé – Traditional – 8:41
4 Mamaya, 15ème Partie – Diabaté, Diabaté – 4:50
5 Ni Bara T’I La – Traditional – 9:18
6 Domamo Ni Koromamo – Traditional – 8:08
7 Lamban – Traditional – 5:09
8 Domamo Ni Koromamo – Traditional – 5:40
9 Iyé Iyé – Traditional – 5:13
Papa Diabaté – Guitar, Vocals (bckgr), Musician
Sona Diabate – Vocals
Gunter Gretz – Liner Notes, Design, Photography
Djessou Mory Kante – Musician
Morikeba Kouyate – Musician
Kante Manfila – Musician
if you like this stuff and you want to hear more check out some of these blogs: Awesome Tapes from Africa, Freedom Blues, Coleção de Sons, Snap, Crackle & Pop, plus of course Babeblogue and Magic of Juju and probably others over there in my blogroll.
you can read the rest of the liner notes and purchase the African Virtuosos album for download here.