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Two Malian Guitar Greats, Gone But Still Wailing

Back in 1985, a young Malian named Zani Diabate became one of the first African musicians to release a successful album in Europe. He was soon crowded out by a flood of superstar African singers, but for anyone who experienced Diabate's rocking guitar tone and edgy African phrasing, the sound is unforgettable.

Diabate has a new CD called Tientalaw, but it's been released under the name Zani Diabate and Les Heritiers — "the heirs." Diabate's accompanists here include his own son, as well as the surviving sons of key members from his original band. Their youthful energy is part of what makes this album such a thrill, but when Diabate takes a solo, it's clear who the real master is.

Diabate came from venerable musical stock, starting out as a percussionist and evolving into an iconic guitar player. His fusion of rock aesthetics and deep African melody influenced a generation of Malian musicians — including Lobi Traore.

Traore's last album was called Bwati Kono, or "in the club." That's where Traore thrived, in the out of the way, working-class nightclubs of the Malian capital, Bamako, where he rocked ecstatic crowds into the wee hours of the night. Traore was a little guy, 5 feet tall at the most, but he sang about big things — fidelity, honesty, patriotism — and his electric guitar sound drove his messages home with conviction.

Traore was making plans to tour the U.S. with his band when he died of a heart attack in 2010, at just 49. Diabate passed away a year later, at 64. His heart also gave out, literally as he was picking up his axe to record in a Paris studio.

Despite their heavy sounds, it wasn't rock 'n' roll excess that felled these legends. More likely, it was the relentless grind of hardworking musicians in urban Africa — and maybe the share of those fragile hearts these two great pickers poured into their true grit performances.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.