"You can instantly spot him as a master - brilliantly engaged and spontaneous, technically impeccable, simply a thrill to behold." Banning Eyre, Afropop Worldwide
“This is like being in the room with JS Bach!” David Harrington, Kronos Quartet
“Lassana reminds me of Thelonius Monk: creative, quirky, and ambidextrous.” David Coulter, composer
Fodé Lassana Diabaté, better known as Lassana Diabaté, is an internationally acclaimed musician, virtuoso balafón (22-key xylophone) player, artist-researcher, composer, culture-bearer, and balafón maker, who comes from a well-known griot family of balafón masters in Guinea. He has collaborated with myriad international musicians and across many genres, including jazz, blues, and Latin music, and has participated in several Grammy-nominated albums. Lassana’s style of playing balafón is highly dexterous and contrapuntal, with an extraordinary independence of left and right hands, a great range of expressive tone and lyrical melodies, and rich sonic resonance. Lassana has developed a unique practice of playing two balafóns that are tuned a semitone apart, which enables him to perform chromatic scales and to play with Western instruments and eclectic ensembles such as the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet.
Early Years: The Emerging Musician
Lassana was born in 1971 into a well-known griot family of balafón masters in Guinea, and began playing balafón at the age of five, learning from his father, Djelisory Diabaté, a master balafón player from Kindia (Guinea). At the age of 10, in Conakry, Guinea, Lassana began to accompany his father at wedding parties. Aged 13, Lassana started to take the lead role on balafón. His reputation reached Guinea’s dance bands, who began to invite him to play with them. At 19 years old, Lassana was invited to join a group led by Ami Koita, Mali’s most popular female griot singer of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Lassana ended up spending two years in Bamako in Mali as part of Ami Koita’s successful ensemble, absorbing the very different local musical styles, and being introduced to the leading young generation of instrumentalists who were pioneering a new musical scene in Bamako, including kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté.
Local & International Artistic Collaborations
Lassana began his professional career as accompanist to Mali’s top divas such as Babani Koné and Ami Koita, and went on to perform and record with many of Mali’s leading musicians such as Toumani Diabaté, Salif Keita, Tiken Jah Fakoly, Kasse Mady Diabaté and Bassekou Kouyaté. In 2013, Lassana became the musical director of Trio Da Kali, a super group of Malian griots whose aim, according to their Twitter account, is to “bring a fresh contemporary twist to the ancient Malian griot tradition.” He has travelled and performed widely both as a solo artist and as the musical director of Trio Da Kali. In 2016, Trio Da Kali had the opportunity to appear at the international WOMEX Festival in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, which also led to extensive touring in North America and Europe. The group has taken part in radio recordings, university classes and workshops, and other activities to help communicate the role of the griots and their music in today’s Mali.
Lassana was a member of the Grammy-nominated Mali-Cuba collaboration, Afrocubism, a revisit of Buena Vista Social Club by the prestigious UK label World Circuit. He recorded with leading international artists such as Taj Mahal and the Kronos Quartet, working across a number of genres including jazz, blues and Latin music. Of his many collaborations, Lassana’s experience of working with the internationally renowned Kronos Quartet has left the most lasting impression. The Kronos Quartet commissioned him to compose a piece for their project “Fifty for the Future,” which resulted in the innovative piece “Sunjata’s Time”, probably the first composition by a West African artist that bridges the traditional and highly improvisational styles of balafón with the more fixed tradition of western classical music. The Kronos Quartet and Lassana have performed “Sunjata’s Time” together at various venues including New York University, Abu Dhabi, in 2015, New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2016, and the San Francisco Jazz Center. Other string quartets such as the Ligeti Quartet and the Dragon Quartet have also included it in their repertoire.
With support from the Aga Khan Music Initiative, Lassana and the Trio Da Kali recorded a multi-award-winning album together with the Kronos Quartet, “Ladilikan,” with versions of the Trio’s own Malian repertoire, plus arrangements of two songs by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The release of “Ladilikan” led to further international media attention to Trio Da Kali. The recording met with universal critical acclaim and debuted on top of the European World Music Chart on the October, 2017 chart. The two major world music magazines in the United Kingdom, Songlines and fROOTS, published extensive features on the group in the fall of 2017.
In 2015-16, Lassana participated in a unique musical project on the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, collaborating with musicians from the Afromexican population, leading to an album recorded on location, Forontó Afroaxaca, released on the Mexican label Xquenda in 2019. Several tracks on the album have been used to raise awareness of the 2020 Mexican census which, for the first time, provided a place for Afromexicans to be counted.
As a balafón maker, Lassana has perfected the complex art of carving and tuning the rosewood keys of the balafón, a craft he learned while growing up in Guinea. He plays two balafóns tuned a semitone apart; but in other respects, the balafóns he makes are unamplified, gourd-resonated, and remain true to the tradition of this instrument in Africa. From 2009-12, Lassana worked as musical guide and assistant on the award-winning “Growing into Music in Mali” film project. From 2015-17, he was the curator of Mali’s National Museum’s concert series “Jeudis musicaux des enfants” (Musical Thursdays for Children), which gives a platform to Mali’s most talented musical youth. In 2016, Lassana established Association Foli-Lakana (which in Bamana, the language of southern Mali, means “Safeguarding Music”), a not-for-profit organization based in Bamako, Mali, which promotes the preservation of local music and instruments in Mali while supporting young Malian musicians to develop their own unique projects.