African Diasporan Musicians in Washington D.C.

Posted February 27th, 2013 at 7:51 pm (UTC-4)

African music performance in Washington D.C. has been been relatively quiet this past month. With the exception of Lira’s appearance for the Presidential Inauguration in January, all’s quiet on the tour circuit front since November 2012. This lull in activity gave me the opportunity to dig deeper into our local diaspora music scene. On February 4th, I discovered an enclave of diaspora musicians and entertainers who rallied the local international community for peace in Mali with a benefit concert. Rapper Supernova King, the headliner and visionary of the event, is an aspiring young artist who moved to the United States with his diplomatic family in 2012. He performed solo to pre-recorded tracks of original, unreleased pieces in French and Bambara. “Gogo Danseuse” is his only published work to date. The video doesn’t reveal much originality by way of message, however, he did perform an original called “Peace in Mali” at the concert that spoke to the situation in his homeland. The two female artists also sang solo to pre-recorded tracks of pop and zouk that ultimately added more quantity than quality to the lineup. The final artist, Malian Cheick Hamala Diabate, was the crowd favorite without a doubt. And for good reason. Cheick is a D.C. staple when it comes to local-area authentic African musicians. He has lived in Maryland for at least 15 years (that’s when I first met him at a conference in Indianapolis) and is routinely called on to perform for the international community and with African artists on tour in the U.S. He carries one of the Mande family names “Diabate” that belong to the hereditary caste of musicians, wordsmiths, and oral historians known as griot (French) or jeli (Bambara). Not all griots are musicians nor are they equally talented, but those who play and sing, learn a deeply complex, classical Mande repertoire through the ancient, oral (and aural) tradition of family apprenticeship. Cheick comes from this tradition, as he was raised in Mali, and he plays excellent n’goni (the 6 stringed lute). He also plays a mean banjo and guitar and has recorded and toured extensively with American folk musicians. In 2007, Diabate’s collaboration with banjo player Bob Carlin, “From Mali to America” (5-String Productions), led to a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional World Music Album.

Cheick’s band literally made the benefit concert worthy of its title  because, well first of all, it was a band and they played a true set of live music. They are called Cheick Hamala’s Griot Street and play at Bossa Bistro & Lounge every Tuesday night. The American electric guitarist (and owner of Bossa) kills it when it comes to solos and rhythm that stick right in the Mande groove. The bassist and calabash player are both African and excellent musicians, jembe player Anthony Holmes is an African-American native of the D.C. area who grew up studying jembe and West African percussion and dance, and the dynamic female dancer/shekere player adds an important visual and sonic element to the fabric of this diaspora group. Though Supernova King was the headliner on paper, Cheick Hamala’s Griot Street carried the even from beginning to end. They played two sets; one  in the middle that appeared to wake everyone up, and the one that closed out the night with people of all ages, sizes, and nationalities. At one point during the crazed dancing, an elderly man fell smack down on his behind from dancing so fast and then to our surprise leaped right back onto his feet without skipping a beat. Jackson Mvunganyi from VOA’s radio program Up Front filmed the event and my interviews with the artists. Check out this tv package of the event for our VOA tv program In Focus and see for yourself.

Heather Maxwell with Reshan Gebre and Peter Hartsock in the back alleys of VOA’s English to Africa Division.

Another diaspora musician I got to know during the world-tour off season of African artists is Ethiopian singer, kirar player Reshan Gebre. Though her English is not as good as she’d like it to be, she came into our studios in January for an interview and short performance. Reshan is from the Tigray region of Ethiopia and her music is largely drawn from the traditional repertoire of the region. She came to the United States about eight years ago but remains one of Ethiopia’s top stars which any simple search on YouTube will prove. During our interview, we talk about how she views life in America, her background as a child soldier in Ethiopia, the history of the kirar, and her plans to build schools in the Tigray region with the support of  Dr. Peter Hartsock, research scientist with the National Institutes of Health and Drug Abuse (NIH/NIDA).

Due to her English, Reshan was hesitant about doing the interview but she prevailed! After reviewing the video, she did catch one English mistake that she insist I clarify for our audiences. Please note that Ms. Gebre means to say “3,000” instead of “300 years” when referring to the kirar’s approximate age. Enjoy the interview.


The world touring season of African artists seems to be picking up again now that we’ve entered the month of March. This Friday, March 1st Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal perform in D.C. to promote their new album At Peace. Habib Koite and Eric Bibb roll through next Friday, March 8th to promote their new album Brothers in Bamako, and South African group Freshly Ground perform in Vienna, Virginia to promote their new album Take Me to The Dance on March 21st. Rest assured I’ll be at all of these events front and center with cameraman Jackson beside me to bring you the latest in African music news in my next blog posts. Despite all the excitement, though, I am glad for the lull we’ve had these past few months. Diaspora musicians make Washington D.C. an interesting place to be even when there are no tours and I have just begun to scratch the surface. In fact tomorrow night I have a rehearsal of my own with a new band that includes a Nigerian drummer and Ivorian bassist, among others. Stay blessed and stay tuned to my next post featuring Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

8 responses to “African Diasporan Musicians in Washington D.C.”

  1. Great article! Just an edit, though- Cheick Hamala’s weekly night at Bossa is Tuesday, not Thursday.

  2. Eva Rutgers says:

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  4. Bruce Penner says:

    Hey Heather, looks great! I’d heard you were at VOA & glad to see you winning awards! Keep it up & let me know if I can assist in any way. After a 2012 Semester At Sea Voyage and a year of reflection, I’m ready to get some projects going. 1 or 2 may be up yr alley! Best from friends in Cville!

    • Heather Maxwell Heather Maxwell says:

      Dear Bruce,
      Hello! Thank you. Nice to read from you. How was you Semester at Sea Voyage? That sounds so interesting.




Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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