Sidiki Diabaté was always going to be a star. His father Toumani Diabaté is the kora player in Mali and his grandfather, after whom he’s named, was just as famous… and for exactly the same thing. It’s in his blood.
The twenty-four-year-old is a ‘griot’ – he comes from a long line of ancestral storytellers, traditionally found in west Africa who entertain patrons and communities with their songs and instruments. The Diabaté family specialise in the kora, a traditional instrument made of a gourd with 21 strings (which looks a bit like a bowl-shaped guitar). Sidiki has been playing it ever since he could hold one. He recorded an album with his father in 2014 which was nominated for Best World Music Album at the Grammys.
So he was always going to be a kora player. But what his family didn’t expect was this: he’d also turn out to be Mali’s very own Justin Bieber.
He’s now had over two million views on YouTube and sells out stadiums in Bamako and venues in Europe. He’s mobbed wherever he goes in Mali by selfie-hungry, mostly female fans. Last year the French rapper Booba released a single Validée that sampled Sidiki’s Ignanafi debena without permission. The ensuing scandal, and Sidiki’s classy reaction, just raised his profile further: ‘Simply, Africa won in the end. Booba is a great artist. And so am I. And Booba doesn’t listen to just any music so I was happy.’
I caught up with him while he was preparing for a sold-out concert at the Palais des Sports in Bamako. Before that, he was also due to perform on the final night of the first ever Festival Acoustik Bamako. It was going to be a busy evening. He admitted that he’d been touring, recording and travelling over a month. No wonder he said he was tired.
His friends got hold of the recordings and uploaded them to YouTube. The rest is history.
It didn’t show. He was on point at the sound check. He knew exactly the base he wanted, his leg up on the speakers, leaning back, strumming his kora, looped around his back like a guitar, jutting at an angle from his crotch: a fitting pose for a rock star. His friends, who’ve been with him since the beginning, fiddled with the sound on computer screens and arranged wires.
A crowd of girls were hanging around, a mere taster to the screaming hordes that would come. 99 per cent of his audience are young women, who adore songs like I Miss You and Trust in Me. He explains that it’s all drawn from his own experience: ‘I am inspired by my personal life, my friends, family and my relationships.’
As he dutifully poses between tuning his kora, for another selfie, with a smile perfected by thousands of requests, you can tell his sudden fame hasn’t made him arrogant. He puts this down to his upbringing. ‘When I was young we would have to practice the kora, my brothers and I, before we could eat.’
He first started producing, singing and mixing beats in his room a couple of years ago. But his friends got hold of the recordings and uploaded them to YouTube. The rest is history.
His friends tell me his father was initially wary of this new direction. But two years ago, at a festival in Denmark, Toumani saw his son perform. As he witnessed the electricity that passed through the crowd, he understood.
‘I am a griot. And I am proud. Tradition is about change.’
Sidiki’s synth, autotune, beats and his singing in Bambara have struck a chord with young Malians, as well as with an older generation more used to his father’s style. In a sense he is telling the same old stories for a new generation. And he knows it: ‘I am a griot. And I am proud. Tradition is about change.’
In his own time, his father Toumani was also seen as a rebel. He popularised the kora worldwide and his debut album was the first solo kora performance ever recorded without singing. One of his friends tells me that when Sidiki played that kora, he could pick out the quirks in the sound that affected his father’s playing back then. Sidiki’s technique is faster and more decisive – you can hear it at the end of Fais Moi Confiance. He’s taking the kora to the next level.
‘Europe only knows two per cent of African culture. Africa is rich culturally.’
And he wants to take the instrument global: ‘Europe only knows two per cent of African culture. Africa is rich culturally.’
When I ask him which artists he listens to, the list is pretty short. ‘My father.’ And this is typical of the griot tradition where skills are passed down from one generation to the next. ‘I am proud to bear my father’s name. That’s why I didn’t change it.’
While his father collaborates with Taj Mahal, Tony Allen, Damon Albarn, he works with Malian rappers like Iba One. He says he wouldn’t mind collaborating with Lil Wayne, One Direction, Beyoncé and even Celine Dion ‘I love her voice’, he explains.
The 4,000-plus crowd that evening suddenly wakes up when Sidiki comes on; the hysterical mass surges towards the stage. Girls are shrieking. Earlier that evening I asked Sidiki about his love life. He pretended to zip his mouth shut – his friends laugh – and then said mysteriously ‘Life is like a video game.’ Whatever that means for the thousands of his fan girls, one thing is for sure: he’s slaying.