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With a nickname like "Diamond Fingers," clearly this man can play the guitar. Although you may not have heard much about him recently, Sekou Diabaté helped shape West African music for the past 50 years. While the Rail Band was making news in Mali, Diabaté was capturing attention in neighbouring Guinea with the band Bembeya Jazz National. Bembeya was formed way back in 1961 — when Diabaté was still just a teenager — but by the end of the decade he established himself as a brilliant guitar player and was soon leading the band.

Diabaté with Bembeya Jazz, grooving and shredding. Watch at 2:10, as the impressed vocalists call out his nickname, “Diamond Fingers.”

Sekou 'Diamond Fingers' Diabaté, griot child

Diabaté’s family members are griots. He descends from a long line of storytellers and historians. His father played the balaphone, and as Diabaté told Afropop in an interview, he was, “one of the first who introduced the guitar to Guinea.” Diabaté went on to explain that, unlike other young kids who wanted to be musicians, his father actually encouraged his love of music. Before heading to Qur'anic school at the age of 10, he asked is father for a guitar. His dad, having either a wicked sense of humour, or a great eye for talent, bought his son a National steel guitar. That’s a big heavy guitar for anyone to play, let alone a 10-year-old. But Diabaté clearly was very talented, and taught himself how to bend those strings. He didn’t take a guitar lesson until five years later, when a cousin showed him a few things.

Over the next few years Diabaté continued to learn from his cousin, a musician who played in the national orchestra. The state was funding many musical groups in the early days of independence, and Diabaté joined the group that became Bembeya Jazz in 1961. He was still just a teenager.

Diabaté falls to his knees while ripping through a killer solo that starts around 9:10. (The mix is rough but his performance is amazing.)

Facing tragedy, growing popularity

Bembeya Jazz was playing a brand new style of music, interpreting and blending traditional Guinean music with jazz and Afropop. One day, around 1970, the band was discussing how to arrange one of the traditional griot songs in a modern way for the whole band to play. Because of Diabaté’s family roots as griots, Diabaté knew the song and took on the task of arranging it. His responsibilities in the band continued to grow.

Tragedy struck the band in 1973, when Diabaté was still in his 20s. While travelling to a gig, the car carrying lead singer Demba Camara, Diabaté, and several other members of the band flipped and rolled over. Most of the band was OK, but Camara was thrown from the vehicle and died. The band and fans were deeply shaken. Camara had been massively popular and famous for his amazing voice.

Listen to Demba Camara with Diabaté and the band.

As the band recovered from the tragedy, Diabaté became the most popular member in the band — the star whose immense talent led the band and captivated the masses. Bembeya Jazz continued to play into the 1980s, but then broke up as the popular taste for big pop orchestras began to change.

A studio version of “Petit Sekou,” from 1976. Does it get better than this?

'Diamond Fingers is God'

After the band broke up, Diabaté recorded a solo album called Diamond Fingers. He received the highest possible praise from Paul Montgomery of Stern’s Records, who said, “Forget Cooder and Clapton, Diamond Fingers is God!” So if you had any lingering doubt about Diabaté’s status as a guitar god, take it from Montgomery.

The band reformed in the late 1990s and has done several tours and recorded a new album in 2002. Diabaté continues to be regarded as one of Africa’s true guitar gods.

Diabaté doing what he does best

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African Guitar Gods: Sekou 'Diamond Fingers' Diabaté

With a nickname like "Diamond Fingers," clearly this man can play the guitar. Although you…

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