Kronos’ Fifty for the Future Composers

Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté - Mali


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About Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté

Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté possesses one of the most beautiful, versatile, and expressive voices of West Africa. A jelimuso (female jeli or ‘griot’) from Mali, she has acquired a cult following as the charismatic singer of Trio Da Kali, an acoustic trio which was formed specially to collaborate with the Kronos Quartet, receiving rapturous reviews for her work on their collaborative award-winning album Ladilikan and for her moving performances with Trio Da Kali, who have toured widely in Europe and the USA to critical acclaim.

Hawa’s charismatic voice is emphatically 21st century, but it is also steeped in the rich heritage of Mali’s griots, the hereditary musicians that date back to founding of the Mali Empire in the 13th century. She was born into a celebrated griot family, the Diabatés of Kela, a village in southwest Mali famous for its music. The Kela Diabatés have a formidable reputation as singers, instrumentalists, and reciters of oral epic histories, with many legendary names from the pre-colonial era to the present, and today Hawa is the torch bearer of that great tradition.

Hawa’s father Kassé Mady Diabaté was known for his entrancing singing, moving his listeners to tears (from which he gets his nickname, Kassé, ‘to weep’), a quality that Hawa has inherited, along with the nickname. Her great-aunt was Sira Mory Diabaté, considered the most important Malian female vocalist of the 20th century, a prolific composer whose songs, like “Kanimba” (on the album Ladilikan) have become griot classics.

Hawa Kassé Mady was born in Kangaba, a small bustling town which was once the seat of power of the Mali Empire, very close to Kela. Because Kangaba had better schools and facilities, Hawa’s mother, Jontan Diabaté, placed her there in the care of a friend, Kani Sinayogo, a nurse whom Hawa regards as a second mother. “Kani made me drink lots of sheep milk when I was growing up” says Hawa. “She told me that sheep’s milk would give me a beautiful singing voice!”

Moving back and forth between town and village, Hawa had the benefit of both worlds. In Kela she participated in the young girls’ tradition of handclapping songs and dances (tègèrè tulon) from which she learned many performance skills. Hawa credits the tègèrè tulon as her true schooling, learning not just about music and coordination but also about how to negotiate the social norms of her culture, particularly as a woman. Her talent as a singer was also nurtured by her father and her great aunt, from whom she learned the art of improvisation, and the vast and complex repertoire of the griots.

Settling with her family in Bamako, the capital, in her teens, Hawa began performing on the wedding party circuit, where she remains much in demand. Apart from one cassette released on the local market, Hawa only ever recorded with her father, in the chorus of his album Kassi Kasse (2003), recorded on location in Kela. The power and beauty of her voice shone through the album, which won a Grammy nomination. But it was not until Trio Da Kali was formed, with the specific aim of collaborating with the Kronos Quartet and with the support of the Aga Khan Music Initiative, that Hawa’s remarkable singing would find a platform in its own right.

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