Abdoulaye Diabate and Super Manden: West African Troubadours in New York

An 800-Year Tradition
Super Manden is a collective of musicians based in New York City, who are dedicated to the performance and teaching of the Malinke oral tradition of Central West Africa known as Jaliya. Passed from generation to generation of hereditary musicians and storytellers, this tradition forms the basis for the larger Mandinka, or Manden culture of Central West Africa.

Jaliya is the entire cultural practice of a caste or class of culture bearers, which encompasses a vast oral tradition of music, dance, entertainment as well as counsel and conflict resolution. Since the time of the great Empire of Mali (13th through 17th Centuries), jalilu (sing. jali) have been important figures in the courts and great houses of the land, singing praises, keeping genealogical records straight and advising on righteous living and correct behavior to their patrons.

In the modern world, the descendants of the jalilu pass down the traditions of song, instrumental music, and sometimes the social roles of the past. Many of today’s top musicians and singers of Mali and Guinea share in this legacy.

Jalilu in New York City
Since the 1980s, the Manden (Malinke speaking) communities of New York City have been visited by jalilu. Some of these musicians and singers arrived in the company of touring bands and dance troupes and have made New York their permanent place of residence. Since 1990, there has been a marked increase in the numbers of jalilu, particularly from Francophone West Africa. Their knowledge of numerous African and European languages, experience with travel, and facility with both music and storytelling make them natural cultural ambassadors of the Manden world.

The descendants of the historical jalilu residing in New York City recognize the legacy of their former role, but they also reflect the intermediary colonial and post-colonial experiences of West Africa.  Most of them have traveled or have resettled within Africa before coming to the United States, experiencing the effects of urbanization and nationalism there. They have been involved daily in the adaptation of the legacy of their caste role to the conditions facing their communities in new contexts both in Africa and in the United States.

Among the jalilu who have migrated to the United States, many maintain a link to their former honorable and vital role in the Manden society. And yet, there is a significant historical and psychic distance between the period in which Sunjata Keita (13th Century founder of the Malian Empire) institutionalized this pre-existing caste of wordsmiths to fit the higher role of court historians and intermediaries, and the present circumstances of immigration to a distant urban capitalist environment.

The descendants of ancient Mali in New York City still share a common history, the Malinke language and a musical and oral tradition. In ceremonies, community gatherings, and public events the jalilu still recite the histories, customs and genealogical information about the Manden peoples. They also sing praises to patrons, help to resolve social conflicts, and entertain as well. In this way, the jalilu help to maintain ties between the migrant communities and their home cultures, while at the same time establishing new contacts and bonds between the West African communities and other ethnic groups and the general public life of New York City.

Super Manden
Those who have followed CTMD’s programs over the last decade will know of these artists, but this year marks a special occasion. We first presented two leading members of the group, singer Abdoulaye Diabate and bala (marimba) player Abou Sylla, ten years ago in the inaugural Badenya festival of CTMD’s West African Community Cultural Initiative. Since then, the Jaliya community has been joined by master kora (harp) player Yacouba Sissoko of Mali.

Over the following decade, all of us have been at work producing more events, recordings and the artists themselves have seen great progress. CTMD featured the artists in our CD release entitled Badenya: Manden Jaliya in New York City on the Smithsonian Folkways label.

Not least of their accomplishments has been the recent achievement of permanent residency status in the United States, based on their artistic excellence and service to the cause of intercultural understanding. This is no small accomplishment in post 9/11 America with extended delays and arbitrary decision making in the immigration process.

Over the past decade, the artists of Super Manden have performed and taught their music widely throughout the United States. And they have recently made a crucial step. Under the guidance of former CTMD West African Community Cultural Initiative Director, ethnomusicologist Tom van Buren, Ph. D. and the law firm of Proskauer and Rose, LLP, Super Manden has been established as a not-for-profit organization to further the performance, teaching and cultural exchange work of the members.

Key Performers
Abdoulaye Diabate (lead singer and guitar) was born in Kela, Mali, to the Diabaté family. Raised in the heart of the Manden tradition from a long line of jalis, Abdoulaye has also spent some twenty years performing contemporary and popular music. His musical career led him to a fusion of these styles.

In 1973 he joined Tenetemba Jazz in Bamako, Mali. Then, he was noted as the lead singer of the Koule Star Band of Kouchala. Two years later, Abdoulaye moved to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where he formed his own twelve piece band, Super Manden. In this band some of the greatest luminaries of West African music circulated as band members: Salif Keita, Mory Kante, Kante Manfila, Ousmane Kouyate and many more.

In 1978, Super Manden released its first recording: Wahabia-Ke Daschi. The album was banned from airplay because the title song criticized some marabouts (West African Muslim religious leaders). In 1992, Abdoulaye joined the world renowned Ballets Koteba as a singer and guitarist. He also toured the world with Les Go de Koteba in the mid-nineties.

Transplanted to New York, in 2002 Abdoulaye was featured in CTMD’s recording Badenya, Manden Jaliya in New York City (Smithsonian Folkways). He appears on the album’s cover wearing his irresistible smile. Since then, he has made further inroads in the World Music scene with collaborations with jazzmen Don Byron, Peter Apfelbaum and guitarist-journalist Banning Eyre. He also released his own album Haklima.

This year, he has toured in Europe twice, and performed in Toronto with Sylvain Leroux and their band Source, releasing a critically acclaimed CD entitled Tonight’s African Jazz Band. In the coming season, Abdoulye looks forward to completing a signature CD album of traditional music of Mali, and to returning to Mali for a collaborative project with a great musician, Toumani Diabate.

Abou Sylla (bala – marimba)is from Kindia, a regional capital in the southern coastal area of Guinea. Born into a local jali family, he learned the bala from the age of seven, and began performing with his father throughout his region.

In 1980, Abou was invited to join the national dance-company of Guinea, Les Ballets Africains, by the late legendary choreographer and artistic director Mohamed Kemoko Sano. He worked with the company for two years, until illness forced him to return home.

After a long period of recovery, he rejoined Les Ballets Africains in 1990 under the direction of Aleppa Bangoura and Mr. Sano. Abou also performed with the second company founded by Mr. Sano, Les Mervielles d’AfriqueIn 1992, he accompanied Les Ballet Africains to perform an extended choreography entitled Silô (“the Path”) on a European tour. In 1993, the company brought the same program to the United States.

Abou returned to the US with Les Merveilles d’Afrique in 1995 and settled in New York. Since then, he has performed and taught Manden music in workshops and residencies throughout the US as well as leading cultural tours to Guinea and Mali. He is currently artist-in-residence at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

Yacouba Sissoko (kora) is a master musician of the jali / griot tradition, born in Kita, Mali. His grandfather, Samakoun Tounkara, began teaching Yacouba when he was 12 years old. Samakoun’s wife Bintouba Diabate was a famous singer in her own right. They raised Yacouba and educated him in the jaliya heritage and provided many lessons about life. His mother Oumou Tounkara was a star in the Ensemble National du Mali. Yacouba attended the Institut National des Arts du Mali, the national music school in Bamako.

After his graduation, Yacouba performed with artists such as Taye and Oumou Sacko, Haja Soumano, Djallou Demba, Ami Koita, Fantani Koure, Kandia Kouyate and l’Ensemble Instrumental du Mali, the national ensemble. In 1993, Souleymane Koli, the director of the Ensemble Koteba of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, recruited Yacouba to spend the next five years performing all over the world with his 45-piece band.

Through his career, Yacouba has traveled to almost every nation on the African continent, as well as thoughout most of Europe, Canada, the U.S. and Australia. He is in demand as one of the best kora players in the world, playing with jazz, Latin and R & B bands as well as at traditional African ceremonies.

As leader of his own band, Siya, and member of Super Manden, Yacouba continues to record with many famous musicians, including the groups Source, Tamalalou and Fula Flute. In 2006, he performed with Baba Maal of Senegal. He also is on the roster of teaching artists for the education program of Carnegie Hall.