Biography - Mamadou Diabate

in Burkina Faso (1973-1999)

Mamadou Diabate was born in 1973 into a West African "Jeli" family in Burkina Faso. In his family there is a long tradition of practising the profession of story telling and music making.

He was about 5 years old when his professional education began. His first teacher was his father Peneque Diabate, who in his days was considered the best balafon player far beyond the borders of the Sambla culture. His xylophone solo could be heard as the signal on Radio Burkina for over ten years. His older brothers, Sadama and Sibiri, who, today, are the most popular balafon players of the Sambla, also taught him. 


He was 8 years old, when he began to complete his apprenticeship with well-known balafon players of the neighbouring cultures like the Siamou, Tusia, Senufo, Gan, Lobi, Dagara and Bobo. Due to Daouda Diabate (1957-2018), his teacher in the Tusia region, his virtuosity became outstanding - some people say, he would have more than two hands. Daouda was the "grand master" of playing the balafon in a sophisticated  polyphonic and polymetric way. This difficult technique allows Mamadou in his solo concerts to create the impression, that three balafonists are playing together.

At this time the Jelis has already lost their pre-colonial reputation and incoming as guardians of the tradition, speaker of the rulers and tutor of their children. Therefore the principal of the elementary school has repeatedly chased Mamadou away because his parents could not afford the school fees. At that time he decided to build a school that is free for everyone (except for that school principal ...) 


At the age of just eleven years, frustrated by his future prospects, he ran away from home, because he decided to extend his skills and widen his musical horizons in Bobo Dioulasso, the second largest city and musical capital of Burkina Faso. This happened against the will of his parents, who expected him to stick to their Jeli-tradition. With the help of neo-traditional groups such as Farafina, Sababougnoma, and Frères Coulibaly, who later became world-famous, he learnt other instruments like ngoni (hunter's harp), dundun (base drum), lunga (talking drum) and the most important one in the "Bobo-Dioulasso style" the djembe. In 1988 his family finally reconciled with him, when his father was looking for a suitable second balafon player for the National Cultural Festival (SNC) of Burkina Faso. The little rebel had, by then, developed into an excellent musician - so, they won the festival‘s first prize. The video recording of their success can be found in the archives of the Burkina Television. 

In 1991, together with Ousmane Dembele ("Zoumana") Moussa Coulibaly and Abdoulaye Dembele, he formed his first band named “Landaya”. Mamadou became the composer and the balafon soloist of the group. In 1998 they won the first prize for the National Culture Festival of Burkina Faso. 

in Austria (2000-)

In 2000, he settled down in Austria. Since then, he travelled  a lot and was invited to many international festivals like: Glatt & Verkehrt Festival (Austria), Brosella Festival (Belgium), Masala (Germany), 5em continent (Switzerland), Colours of Ostrava (Czech Republic), Global Village Festivals (Denmark), Saalfelden Jazz Festival (Austria), Ingolstadt Jazz Festival (Germany), Ice Music Festival (Norway), Tanz- & Folkfest' of Rudolstadt (Germany), Printemps de Musical (LUX), Afrika Festival Wuerzburg (Germany), Global Village Moscow (Russia), Rain Forest Festival (Malaysia), Fleur de Niger (Mali), Sunsplash Wiesen (Austria), Kasumama (Austria), Chiala Graz (Austria), Weltmusik Festival Bielefeld (Germany), Afrika Festival Wassertrüderingen (Germany), Sufi Sutra (India), Jazz à Ouaga (Burkina Faso), Triangle du Balafon (Mali), WOMAD, Africajarc Festival (France).  

Already in August 2001 he had his international breakthrough with his CD “Sababu man dogo” (A Chance is not just Anything) with own compositions in the popular Bobo-Dioulasso style, where he played all instrumental parts himself. The Austrian TV (ORF1) and Broadcast (Ö1) presented it in October 2001. 


His second CD “Keneya” (Well-being) in May 2002 became the world premier recording of the Sambla music and language. He had to play all instrumental parts himself, because he was the only Sambla in Austria at this time and this music - or what outsiders consider being beautiful music - is in reality the Sambla language transposed into music. (Without opening the mouth Sambla balafonists can tell stories, report on current events, chat with the people around, mock people who annoy them, and even flirting. For the Sambla people, all this is self-evident. Musicians, who don't speak this language can't play Sambla music at all.)  

Between 2002 and 2005 he toured with his Afro-Jazz band "Bekadiya" enriched with classical and jazz musicians like Achim Tang (double-bass), Thomas Berghammer (trumpet, flugelhorn), Werner Wurm (trombone), Shayan Fathi (percussion), Fatoumata Dembele (singing). In 2003 they released the CD “Sira Fila” (Two Ways). 

Due to his Sababu- CD he got the invitation to take part in Wolfgang Meyering's "Magic Marimba" project at the 'Tanz- & Folkfest' of Rudolstadt / Germany in 2003. This was the first big challenge for Mamadou in Europe. Seven musicians from six different countries who never met before were requested to bring along own compositions and set up a complete concert program within three days. There is an excellent 60minutes VHS-documentation about the rehearsals and the concerts produced by the German TV-station MDR.  

February 2004: Concert with Indonesian band SambaSunda and Djembe Workshop in Bandung (Indonesia). Mamadou met them in Rudolstadt. Wonderful musicians. He was glad to perform with  them again in 2006 during the Glatt und Verkehrt Festival in Krems / Austria.

From the very beginning of his life in Austria he cooperates with the saxophonist Sigi Finkel. First as a member of Sigi's "African Heart" group, then in a Duo. Their Duo-CD “Folikelaw” (a live concert recording) was released in January 2005, their "Yala" in 2010 - both by the Austrian Broadcast. Sigi is one of the very rare European musicians who has managed to learn the Sambla way of playing music. 

In April 2006 Arkady Shilkloper invited Louis Sanou and him to participate in his "Global Village" project in Moscow with Marvin Dillmann, Sergei Starostin, Christophe Schweizer, Stoyan Yankulov and Elitsa Todorova. It was a great pleasure to collaborate with these excellent musicians.

With his project "Percussion Mania", set up in 2006, he focuses again to his West African heritage. It started as a trio and grew up to 7 people on stage, occasionally extended with musicians from other parts of Africa or from South America. Musical dialogs and spectacular balafon duels between the two brothers Mamadou and Seydou Diabate are in the centre of this music. Until now they released the following CDs: 

  1. Kamalenya (2006) a trio with Louis Sanou and Karim Sanou; 
  2. Kanuya (2011) with Studio Percussion Graz, Insingizi, Jon Sass, Wolfgang Puschnig, Silvio Gabriel, Ismael Barrios, Edison Tadeu as guest musicians; 
  3. Masaba Kan (2014) with Toumani Diabate, Cheick Tidiane Seck and Kandy Guira as special guests; 
  4. Nakan (2019)

With "Kanuya" he won the Austrian World Music Award in 2011 and in 2012 the Grand Prix of the "Triangle Du Balafon" in Sikasso in Mali. For his way of playing the balafon, he was also honored there with the "Prix Alkaly Camara de la virtuosité". 

Since 2008 he takes part in the trio project of Wolfgang Puschnig (alto sax and flute) with Jon Sass (tuba). They released a CD "Mutua" in 2012.

The promotion of the Sambla, Tusia and Siamou music tradition is a permanent heartfelt desire for him. With his Lege-Lege-Foli project in 2009 the people became the first chance to listen to authentic Sambla and Tusia musicians in Europe. In the same year he released two CDs with their authentic music: the "Sambla Fadenya" and the "Tusia Fadenya".

For years he played with the idea to release a  solo balafon album. But the decisive impulse to do so came from observing the Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin as he played Leopold Godowsky's Chopin-studies for the left hand. Mamadou was astonished how much was possible with the 5 fingers of only one hand and felt challenged to experiment intensively, in order to find out what is possible with two mallets on the balafon. The result is his CD "Fenba", a spectacular firework,  was released in 2010.

In 2015 and 2016 he played balafon at the Ice Music Festival in Geilo / Norway. (It was freezing cold...) Incredible but true: The balafon was built of ice.

Mamadous CD „Barokan“ in 2015 – was a trio project together with Dramane Dembele on African flute and Claudio Spieler on percussion. Even fans of classical chamber music would appreciate it. 

The project "Douba Foli" was a Percussion Mania-tour with a CD-release in May 2016 with Abdoulaye and Modibo Diabate - two popular singers from Mali - plus Wolfgang Puschnig, Sigi Finkel and Jon Sass. 

The most burning heartfelt desire for Mamadou since his childhood, to help poor children in Burkina Faso to get education, came into reality on the 14th September 2010, when after 6 years of hard work and with the great help of benevolent people and organisations in Europe his elementary school in Bobo Dioulasso was officially opened. Today over 600 children learn there free of charge. His school was the seventh best among the 38 primary schools of Bobo Dioulasso in 2019.

In 2016 he was made Knight of the National Order (Chevalier de l'Ordre National) of Burkina Faso. 


In 2019 he received the "Best International Artist" award of Burkina Faso.


Since 2016, he has been working on a linguistic project with Laura McPherson at Dartmouth College (USA).