I first saw Prince Diabate perform at an event for the Dalai Lama’s citywide World Festival of Sacred Music held in LA in 1999. I was mesmerized. I was flattened by the cascades and crescendos of celestial sound that flowed from his exuberant kora (West African harp). It sounded like angel tears bursting into fireworks of joy! I felt that I must somehow learn to play this large, exotic 21-stringed instrument of elation. So I approached and requested lessons. Yes! AND… he lived within walking distance. Over time, I was able to accompany him with simple ongoing rhythms for each song. His fingers would explode on his strings in a rapture of melody and poly-rhythms while I desperately clung to consciousness, afraid to drop into the trance that my repetitive patterns might induce.
Los Angeles is home to a generous community of West Africans. So I was fortunate to have Prince Diabate as my guide through the weddings, celebrations, customs and traditions which would otherwise have been invisible to me. Even better, he hosted my partner, Frank, and me twice on trips to the capital city of Guinea on Africa’s western shoulder. Conakry was a wide thumb of land protruding into the Atlantic. A city of one million souls with intermittent water and electricity. There were no traffic lights at the time, and the traffic cops bravely stood in the onrush directing cars all around. In Conakry I studied bolon (West African bass) with Amadou Bolon, living master of traditional bolon.
Prince Diabate is seen in his country as a god among men. He was treated to a combination of reverence and popularity that should only happen if Elvis were the Pope. Word of mouth buzzed around his every appearance on the street. He was forced to change domiciles often to avoid the throngs that invariably tracked him to his lair at night. By day, he showed me the grand, expansive marketplace, packed with food, jewelry, cloth and goods of every description. Upon seeing that I was carrying streamers in their soccer team’s colors (red, green and yellow) a collective shout of approval went up from the merchants and patrons alike! I was endlessly surprised by denizens who accepted me enthusiastically. We ate beignets and peeled oranges on the street, dined on chicken or fish and haricots verts at local cafes and downed “Deluxe,” a dark Guinean beer or “Gingembre,” a ginger and lemon beverage in small neighborhood clubs. A fan might follow him there and, standing expectantly and uncertainly before him, hope for a blessing or a laying-on-of-hands from his idol.
We traveled from the city through the countryside past roadside stalls of eggs, porcelain toilets, and kitchenware; past men and women bearing books, maps, cloth and other marketable items on their heads; past squat cylindrical dwellings covered with palm thatching; and past a modest mustard-colored mosque to arrive at the “Voile de Mariee,” a tall, misty waterfall at the end of a dirt road shaded by gnarled and ancient trees trailing with vines. It was like visiting an exquisite shrine to the goddess of nature. Unforgettable.
Guinea is a country with a culturally rich population. They are multi-lingual, most speaking the local languages — Baga, Fulani, Malinke, Puel, Susu and French. Many Guineans who have not had a formal education speak countless world languages… among them Russian, Swedish or even Hungarian. Wherever I walked on the streets, inhabitants struck up an easy friendship and cheerfully called out “L’etranger (foreigner) de Prince”, as I passed. In Guinea, life occurs on the streets, vividly patterned garments are works of art, and laughter is the coin of the realm. And so, on my last day there, I felt a sadness, a loss of an expressive world very different from my own. Nevertheless, it has been my honor and privilege to become a sister and best friend of Prince Diabate, a delightful and exemplary human being as well as one of the world’s greatest kora virtuosos!
Linda J. Albertano has run the gamut from the political to the ridiculous, unleashing her language on unsuspecting audiences in both the US and Europe. As a poet, she represented Los Angeles at the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam, and she’s featured on the Venice Poetry Wall at Windward Ave. with such local notables as Jim Morrison, Viggo Mortensen and Exene Cervenka.
At the LA Theatre Center she presented a full-length work complete with artists, dancers and a 30-piece marching band from South Central LA. Then for the Santa Monica Arts CounciI, she mounted Calisaladia – a condensed history of California — with a large, multi-cultural cast. In the new millennium she studied West African music (kora and bolon) in Guinea, returning to perform for more than a decade at such venues as the Getty, Royce Hall and the Sacred Music Festival with kora virtuoso, Prince Diabate.
Recently she’s been published in Maintenant, a contemporary journal of Dada art and poetry featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art. And she’s been performing experimental works at Beyond Baroque, City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and Cabaret Revoltaire for the Los Angeles celebration of the centennial of Dada. In the winter months, she’s appeared as Prince Diabate’s accompanist at intimate home concerts in both Pasadena and Venice Beach.