Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Zani Diabate, a Malian legend, dies in Paris

We learned this week of the death of Malian maestro, bandleader, and sterling guitarist Zani Diabate.  Zani died in Paris after a long illness, with one of his daughters at his side.  We have few details, not even the exact date of his death, though it was within the first week of January.

Zani Diabate (Kanaga System Krush)

 Zani was best known for his work with the Super Djata Band, whose self-titled CD released on Mango in 1988 completely rearranged our conception of Malian music.  On that album, Zani championed the spiky, pentatonic guitar style that would become a staple of Bambara, Wassoulou and other Malian roots styles.  It was raw, rocking, earthy, a far cry from the genteel elegance of Mande kora players and praise singers.  Zani was himself a griot, and had many musical personas.  But his contribution with Super Djata is likely the one that will resonate the longest.

I met Zani on my first visit to Mali in 1992.  He was a supremely gracious host.  I rode on the back of his  motorcycle to a gig outside Bamako.  It was informal, one of those shows where various singers and guitarists take the stage in a free-flowing jam.  Zani's sound was as powerful as ever, though this band was far from the juggernaut of Super Djata.  No matter.  We talked guitar and history and music trends and had a wonderful time.  And I know from musician friends that I was just one of many foreigners he took under his wing over the years. 

Unfortunately, Zani never really emerged on the world stage the way one would have hoped.  I really don't know why.  He was overshadowed by a succession of other artists, many of whom named him as a key model and inspiration.   But his contribution and legacy are undeniable, and there is no doubt he will be sorely missed by many.

Zani joins a sorrowful list of Malian legends who have passed away too soon during the past year, including Lobi Traore, Ramata Diakite, and the singer Mangala, a hugely original and deeply beloved creator within Mali, who never really got his due on the international stage.  All these greats are now with the ancestors, but their music and memories remain.

Here's a link to video of Zani and the Super Djata Band in action during their heyday.

Banning Eyre

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