Guinean Alpha Yaya Diallo is at the forefront of contemporary African music and is ranked among other West African luminaries like Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, and Ismaël Lô. But for over twenty years, he has been based in Vancouver, Canada where he is flying the flag for African music with great success. Hadani Ditmars went to meet him.
Alpha Yaya Diallo’s music incorporates hypnotic beats, sensual Senegalese- style mbalax rhythms, elements of Cape Verdian morna and soaring Guinean melodies, but at the root of it all is Diallo’s unique take on the African guitar – first brought to the continent by Portuguese sailors.
Diallo has made it his own, incorporating styles and influences from flamenco to jazz to traditional African instruments. His inventive transposition of kora, balafon and African percussion to both acoustic and electric guitar make his music stand apart.
And yet, since 1991 – he’s called Vancouver, Canada home.
What drew him to this Pacific coastal idyll – known more for its outdoors culture and huge Chinese population than African culture?
Fresh from a jam with his band Bafing and Kinshasa-based Mbongwana Star at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, I sit down with Diallo for a chat about his life and his music.
As bagpipes bleed into the background from a nearby stage, the gorgeous Pacific backdrop of ocean and mountains seems about as far away from Guinea as one could imagine.
But on a cross-Canadian tour in 1991, after being signed by Peter Gabriel’s Real World label in 1989, “I fell in love with the city,” Diallo says. “It’s a magical place. I decided to stay here and I’ve been based here ever since.”
Besides the attraction of the natural beauty of the mountains and the water, Diallo says, “I got a lot of support from people here when I decided to stay. There weren’t many African musicians here then – only a few drummers. It was hard to put a band together – but I managed.”
While the African community is growing in Vancouver, it’s tiny compared to those of Montreal and Toronto, and in 1991 it was miniscule. In spite of a black history in the city – the community of Hogan’s Alley near Chinatown, where Jimi Hendrix once lived, was destroyed in the late 60s when it was bulldozed to build a new freeway – there’s a very small black population compared with nearby Seattle (Hendrix’s hometown) and recent African immigrants have chosen Eastern Canada over the Pacific Rim.
Putting down new roots
But Diallo, who grew up listening to both traditional Guinean music, rock music and even flamenco says, “Music has no borders. I wasn’t looking for an African community per se. I just love playing music, anywhere I am.”
As enthusiastic “helicopter” dancers in tie-dyed t-shirts dance nearby, he notes, “There aren’t very many Africans at this festival either,” subtly referencing the rather monochromatic crowd, so typical of world music festivals in the West. “But we’re still playing.”
While there are a few well-known African musicians now based in Vancouver – like Cape Town-born Themba Tana, who has a cult following in Japan – the new influx, says Diallo, is “a lot of young guys from Nigeria. People don’t know them yet but they’re into electronic music fused with West African sounds.”
The local music scene has embraced them, he says. “They feel welcome here. Myself, I couldn’t have done better somewhere else. I’ve won Junos [the Canadian version of the Grammys], I tour everywhere, and I play all the time.”
After festival season wraps up at the end of summer, his autumn theatre schedule is full, with upcoming performances across North America. He’d like to gig in Europe again – his last big tour was in 2004/5 across Germany and Switzerland – but for now he’s focussing on recording.
“So I wasn’t expecting an African crowd when I came here,” says Diallo, gesturing towards the logging town turned international resort destination, which is the third-least affordable city for housing in the world, in a province that still bears the colonial name British Columbia. “I left Africa for the larger world – and I want the world to hear my music. And I want to learn from other people – not just Africans.”
To that end, Diallo has found North America’s – and especially Canada’s – new-world multiculturalism musically liberating. Diallo, who sings in French and English as well as several African languages, has collaborated with Chinese zither players, Japanese taiko drummers, Indian sitarists and traditional Hawaiian musicians.
He’s also participated in a group called the African Guitar Summit, originally organised for a CBC Radio concert, that brought together Canadian members of the African musical diaspora, including guitarist Pa Joe and singer Theo Yaw Boakye from Ghana, Adam Solomon from Kenya, Mighty Popo from Burundi/Rwanda, and from Madagascar, guitarist and harmony singer Donné Robert and Madagascar Slim. Their self-titled CD, African Guitar Summit was released on CBC Records in November 2004, and went on to win the Juno Award for World Music Album of the Year. The band toured Canada to great acclaim.
Diallo’s musical journeying mirrors his childhood, as the son of a doctor who travelled throughout Guinea.
“I started playing guitar at age six,” explains the now 53-year-old Diallo. “I was influenced by different instruments and traditions as my father was moving around a lot. Every few years we’d go to a different city. That gave me the opportunity to learn different Guinean languages and musical styles – from the Fulani [people] in the North, where I’m from, to the Malinké and the Soussou in the South.”
Diallo relates that, growing up in Guinea, he listened to a wide range of both Western and African guitarists like George Benson, Pat Metheny and Mark Knopfler as well as Dr Niko from the Congo, and Sekou “Diamond Fingers” Diabate of the famed Guinean band Bembeya Jazz.
“He was such a strong influence when I was growing up,” says Diallo. “He was a legend.”
While his music can be transporting, his attention to technique may well owe more to the scientific method. Following in the steps of his doctor father, Diallo studied genetics at the university in Conakry.
“Guinea was a bit like Cuba then,” says Diallo of the “African socialist” dictatorship that sponsored national music schools. “But the good thing was that the university had a music programme and I played lead guitar in a band.” Diallo soon abandoned further studies in genetics and went on to great musical acclaim.
In the late 80s, Diallo went to Paris and joined a band called Fatala, signed by Peter Gabriel’s Real World label in 1989. Diallo fondly recalls the global touring that followed that led him to Vancouver in 1991.
“We toured all over. It was a good experience. That label brought a lot of world music and African music on to the global scene. Gabriel worked with many African musicians like Youssou N’Dour and Papa Wemba and really helped introduce them to the world.”
At the same time as collaborating with multicultural musicians, Diallo is keeping the Guinean tradition alive in the diaspora. But his homeland is never far from his heart and mind.
His last trip was in 2000 to do some recording – a journey that became the subject of a Canadian documentary film aptly named Best of Both Worlds.
While in the past Diallo says he “used to go there every year”, now that he has children he affirms, “I want to make sure that it’s safe when I take them there.”
Things are improving, he relates, of his politically troubled country. “Musicians are free to talk, to write, to tour” – but there are still some issues with censorship.
“There’s a limit,” explains Diallo. “If you cross the line, you may get punished by the government. It’s still a bit of a dictatorship – but there is a fledgling democracy. It’s very young – but it’s growing.”
Diallo’s songs are not overtly political per se, but songs like Immé (from his 2010 album of the same name), a call to open borders and letting people travel, and also, says Diallo, a paen to the plight of migrants dying in the Mediterranean, and Freedom (from his 2001 album The Journey), about women’s liberation in Africa, make some salient points. And his most recent album (Mosulu, 2014) is dedicated, he relates, “to the strength and beauty of women”.
Diallo admits to a certain “African ambience” that is lacking in his new-world home.
“It’s not easy,” he says of his musical journey between different worlds. “But when you become truly multicultural and international – and connected to our common humanity – you can play anything.”
Diallo’s next album is a pop-infused exploration of Africa. “I’m always growing and changing as a musician,” he says, “but I never forget my roots.” NA