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Mali's Musical Tour de Force

It has not yet been a day since he endured the 20-hour flight from his native Mali to Manhattan, but he is laughing and sharing a contagious energy.

Accompanied by his kora -- a 21-string harp almost 6 feet tall -- Mamadou has performed extensively throughout his African homeland and in neighboring countries for the past three months.

One might assume that a conversation with him would be dominated by the details of his latest journey. But Mamadou has something else on his mind.

"Where is your little kora?" he asked his 21-month-old son, Djelimory.

Father and son exchanged a giggle, and a few seconds later thin, sharp notes began to ring out.

"Play the kora!" Mamadou encouraged. "Play the kora!"

The staccato notes continued with little discernable order but notable confidence and joy. "Do you hear that?" Mamadou asked.

The small sounds are the Malian equivalent of hearing Michael Jackson sing as a toddler or listening to Wynton Marsalis practice before heading off to preschool.

Though he doesn't know it yet, Djelimory has big shoes to fill. He is the youngest member in a famous line of jelis, African traditional musicians whose music helps sustain consciousness of their past and culture. So renowned are Djelimory's ancestors that their family name, Diabate, is synonymous with musical excellence.

And Mamadou can certainly sympathize with the immensity of his son's legacy. Himself just 25 years old, Mamadou only recently stepped out of the long shadows of legendary relatives with the release of his first album, Tunga.

On his first album, Mamadou exhibits exceptional musicality and versatility. From start to finish, Tunga is almost contradictory in its depth -- rhythmically free yet melodically complex, soulful but precise.

Mamadou credits his family for the album's inspiration. He said his father, Djelimory Diabate, played in the prestigious Instrumental Ensemble of Mali and advised him to listen to the best players and learn from each.

Considering his cousin, Toumani Diabate, is an internationally acclaimed kora musician, Mamadou never had to look far to his instrument played at its highest level. "I listen to his music and my father's music often," he said. "The more I listen, the stronger my playing becomes."

Ironically, Mamadou traveled halfway across the world to the United States to attain the level of kora playing he now possesses. "Once I got here, I began developing my own style," he said.

Mamadou's first visit to America came in 1996 when he was invited on a tour with his father's ensemble. The group performed in a dozen major American cities. "When I came (to the United States), I thought I would be going back home at the end of the tour," he said.

Encouraged by friends and family already in the United States, Mamadou made his first visit to America permanent. He has resided in Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife since that tour's conclusion.

Living in America, however, has been anything but sedentary.

Mamadou estimates that he has performed more than 200 times since 1997, in places as disparate as Wisconsin and Burkina Faso.

The last two years have been especially full, with concerts up and down the East Coast and throughout the Midwest.

Despite the hectic schedule, Mamadou speaks of touring with a reverence few could imitate.

"I like to go everywhere, especially places where (people) do not know the kora," he said. "I love performing because it allows me to move people and to help people discover my music."

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Traveling has had a profound effect on Mamadou's music. On his album, he seamlessly incorporates American blues and jazz with Bambara music. Quite fittingly, Tunga means "adventure" -- a word that describes Mamadou's life as well as his music.

At age 4, he left the city of his birth to join his father in the town where his ensemble rehearsed, and he was no older than 12 when he began performing at local weddings and parties.

More recently, he has played at U.S. embassies and a score of elite music festivals. But somehow Mamadou maintains the refreshing perspective of a young boy.

"The travel is so good for me. It helps me become a professional," he said. "It's good for my family as well. You always have to pay the rent, so performing will always help that."

But even the most typical musician's concern -- money -- doesn't loom quite so large for Mamadou.

"Even if (the venue) doesn't offer me a lot of money, I will still take the gig," he said. "It is an opportunity to enlighten people and to establish myself."

Listening to Mamadou speak, there is no doubt that he is doing exactly what he loves. And it is clear that his aspirations run deeper than financial success and American exposure.

"I am a Diabate," he said over the sound of his son's plucking. "My music is not just something I play. I was born into music."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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