Cheick Hamala Diabate’s danceable Afropop does best with Garden Fest’s ill-suited venue


Grammy award-winning musician Cheick Hamala Diabate performs at the National Museum of African Art on May 10, 2013. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
May 12, 2013

A few minutes after 5 p.m. Friday, the music of Cheick Hamala Diabate and his sextet began to fill the Enid A. Haupt Garden. The show began almost a half-hour earlier than advertised, so only a handful of people were looking at the stage outside the National Museum of African Art. But the rippling Afropop soon drew listeners. Some members of the camera-phone generation took quick snaps and moved on. One passerby set down her purse, danced ecstatically for a minute and then left. Others settled in for most or all of the rollicking, nearly two-hour set.

The Mali-bred local musician is a griot, a member of the West African caste of teachers, storytellers and performers. Headlining the Smithsonian’s Garden Fest, Diabate and his group began in low-key, educational mode. Most of his musicians were seated, and their purple-
tunic-wearing leader gently plucked the ngoni, a traditional African instrument. Balafon player Uasuf Gueye took a few minutes to explain his instrument, a wood-and-calabash cousin of the xylophone. But Diabate has souped up his four-string ngoni with three additional strings, and plugs it into an array of effects pedals. Trading licks with guitarist Rob Coltun, he ranged from Mali blues to Ghanaian high-life to global trance-rock.

Diabate’s recent EP, “Prudence,” features four dance mixes of the title song. When the group played the tune Friday, it was free of synth-beats, as well as the trumpet of the original recording. The link between Diabate’s style and rave music was audible nonetheless. Both styles are cyclical, with riffs that loop and interlock, depart and return — and both are short on vocal hooks. Diabate sang a little, and even rapped during one number. His voice was sometimes supported by that of dancer-percussionist Sunny Harris, whose moves seemed as Asian as they did African. But most of the passages were purely instrumental, characterized by rolling grooves from which patterns played by guitarist Coltun, bassist Rob Coltun or one of the four percussionists would briefly emerge.

As the show continued, Diabate switched to banjo — the ngoni’s American descendant — and then guitar. In his style of playing, all had a trebly tone and staccato delivery. The notes chimed and twirled, merging with the clipped beats of the djembe, the balafon, the beaded calabash and the Western drum kit. The music was simultaneously static and propulsive, and designed to get people moving.

Maybe rush hour on the Mall wasn’t the perfect time for that kind of moving, though. “Ready to dance?” Diabate asked several times, but found few takers among the crowd. It was, after all, Garden Fest.


Grammy award-winning musician Cheick Hamala Diabate performs at the National Museum of African Art on May 10, 2013. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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