Born in Kita, Mali, into the family Diabate with a Jeli (Griot) tradition dating back over 800 years, Cheick Hamala Diabate is recognized as one of the most famous nÆgoni Jelis in both the Malian and international communities. The son of two Jeli families û Diabate and Tounkara û Mr. Diabate was trained from birth in the traditional manner of one born into a Jeli family. Trained in oral history, song and music, Mr. Diabate quickly became a master of several traditional Jeli instruments of historical importance. But he became renowned for his skill in playing the nÆgoni, a stringed lute and ancestor of the banjo, which he learned from his maternal grandfather, the great Demba Tounkara. He later learned to play the guitar from his uncle, Djelimadi Tounkara.
In addition to the training received from within his Jeli family, Mr. Diabate attended both French and Islamic schools. At age 12, he was invited to study at the National Institute of the Arts in Bamako, MaliÆs capital. After completing his studies, he began an international touring career based in Bamako. He toured throughout West Africa, Europe, Asia, and Canada. He has performed with well-known artists such as Yayi Kouyate, Ami Koita, Kandia Kouyate, Madi Tounkara, and Salif Keita.
In 1995 Mr. Diabate came to the United States to pursue a career as an independent performer, lecturer, and instructor of traditional Jeli instruments with particular emphasis on the nÆgoni. Since his arrival, he has performed and presented at numerous venues, including the Smithsonian Institution, George Washington University, Brooklyn College, and New York State University. He has also worked with the KanKouran West African Dance Company, Maimouna Keita Dance Company, and the WÆose Cultural Institute.