It's not every day that a Midwestern city adopts a musician from the Wassoulou region of Mali, whose rich musical heritage has played a major role in the development of the American blues sound. Here in Madison, we have Wassoulou musician Tani Diakite. But we almost lost him.
On April 21, as Diakite headed home from his new job at a Belleville-area farm, the truck he rode in was struck by a car. The musician, known to many from his monthly gigs at Mickey's Tavern and his performances at local festivals over the past eight years, was rushed to UW Hospital by medical helicopter. Friends and family wondered if they'd ever see him again.
According to Paddy Cassidy, a close friend and bandmate of Diakite's, there were many broken bones, including a fractured jaw, femur and pelvis. To make matters worse, there were internal injuries as well, ranging from a collapsed lung to a lacerated liver.
"At first he was unconscious, and when he woke up, he didn't recognize people. After a day or two, he started to come around, but he couldn't speak because he had a respirator tube in," Cassidy says. "It was really scary, but he's been making excellent progress. He went through lots of surgery, having plates and bolts and things put in his bones, and he can move around with a walker now."
Diakite recently returned to his east-side home, where he'll face a long recovery. Fans from Mickey's and the many other places he plays, such as Africana and the Weary Traveler, will miss the sound of his kamele n'goni, a gourd-harp that's a staple of Wassoulou music.
"Tani makes his own instruments," explains Andy Ewen, one of Tani's musical collaborators and member of the local blues-rock outfit Honor Among Thieves. "The kamele n'goni is made from 10 or 11 strings strung across a skin-covered gourd held in place by a bamboo rod that has tuning pegs attached to it."
It's what Diakite does with the instrument that's so impressive, though. It's fantastically funky and ridiculously rhythmic.
As Ewen puts it, "This isn't the music of [Malian musician] Ali Farka Toure. [Diakite's] instrument is this pulsing, rhythmic and almost spiritual thing. I've found a whole new vocabulary by playing [guitar] with him: You get into this hypnotic groove, and it transports you, whether you're playing or listening."
In other words, the name Desert Trance Infusion, which Diakite has given one of his backup bands, is right on the money.
Cassidy, who drums with Diakite, says the musician's personality infuses both the music and the crowd with positive energy.
"He's just such a generous and charismatic person, and his music is so freeing, it just makes people want to dance," he says. "We feed off the crowd and each other, so it's like everyone's participating together, and Tani is there at the center of it all. He sets the rhythm and everybody else follows him."
Diakite expects to start performing again in June, once he's healed a bit more. In fact, just thinking about future gigs seems to put him in a good mood.
"I cannot wait to play. I cannot wait to make people happy again. And I have to play better now because you show me you care so much," he adds with a chuckle.
In the meantime, folks will have opportunities to show Diakite just how much they appreciate his presence on the local scene, both as a musician and as a magnet pulling music fans and African performers into a vibrant social circle.
Nicky Sund of the Ghanaian music-and-dance troupe Atimevu has teamed with Ewen, Cassidy and his wife, Otehlia, among others, to organize a pair of benefit concerts to help Diakite pay his medical bills and keep his family afloat while he's unable to work. The Brink Lounge will host a benefit featuring Atimevu on June 3, while the High Noon will do a June 24 fundraiser with a silent auction and sets by Honor Among Thieves, Chafo, Kikeh Mato and Samba Novistas.
Diakite adds: Other types of good vibes are also appreciated. They're good for the heart, and for the soul of his music.