Words by Alastair Johnston
Zani Diabaté’s first name may not be as instantly recognisable as his last (many of the Diabaté clan are griots) but his music is immediately engaging as it sets up rhythmic patterns and then modulates in trance-like loops. His sparkling incandescent guitar shows him to be the equal of his Western counterparts, as much as other renowned Malian guitarists such as Lobi Traoré, Mama Sissoko, Sekou Diabaté of Bembeya Jazz, or Djelimady Tounkara of the Rail Band. But Zani Diabaté didn’t become one of Mali’s top flight guitarists overnight. As a member of the National Ballet du Mali in the 1960s Zani trained on the kora (harp-lute) and balafon (xylophone), and also in dance and percussion. But it was as a guitarist that he emerged in the 80s at the helm of the Super Djata Band, fronted by vocalist Flané Sangaré. After 20 years of performing electrified versions of traditional Bamana music, the band had an international release on the Mango label.
Super Djata flickered briefly on the world stage, but Zani continued to record in Bamako and integrate his traditions into modern music, putting rhythmic flourishes into his work that astounded listeners at his live performances. For Tientalaw he surrounded himself with young talent to pass the torch to his son and the sons of his former colleagues. Sadly, as he was putting the finishing touches on this album in Paris, Zani died, aged 63. His band, Les Héritiers (The Inheritors), sets the pace with a traditional line-up plus trap drums and a pulsing bass. Varied vocals and occasional horns give a counterpoint to the balafon and guitar. Zani doesn’t hog the spotlight but lets the other instruments, such as ngoni (lute) and percussion, create a mood, before he jumps in, leaving us transported.