Published Jun 27, 2010Guitarist Alpha Yaya Diallo is an African Guitar Summit unto himself. Not only is he a member of that Juno Award winning pan-African super-group, but he is a repository of the continent's many different styles.
The guitar was introduced along the Western coast of Africa by Portuguese sailors centuries ago, and gradually worked its way into local musical cultures. By the end of World War II, the guitar emerged as the lead instrument of several popular styles of music, and electrification sparked the emergence of national and regionally recognized bands. Diallo was born and raised in Guinea, whose best-known band, Bembeya Jazz, was led by his avowed influence, Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate, one of Africa's greatest guitar heroes.
"I travelled around a lot," because his father was a doctor, says Diallo of his childhood. "In Guinea there are a lot of different ethnic groups. In northern Guinea there is the Fulani people, which is where I'm from. There's also the Soussou down south. All those ethnic people influenced the way I play guitar. The Malinke play kora, the Soussou play mostly the balafon (West African xylophone) and percussion. All those traditional instruments I try to transpose to the guitar. Basically, that's common in Africa."
Soon Diallo started to play music. "I started playing percussion at school when I was five, six years old. I played percussion with friends at school on empty boxes and all kinds of things. But I started playing guitar when I was 12. I fabricated my own guitar, with nylon strings. Nylon strings are very popular in Africa. It's the kind of string you use to go fishing; it's cheap. I studied all kinds of music: Western music, African music, Congolese styles. My sister had some Cuban music, and some Western music ― Mark Knopfler, George Benson, Eric Clapton, James Brown and all that. So I was a hungry player, just learning anything." Diallo became the top guitarist at his university, as well as a skilled balafon player. After graduation, his versatility kept him employed through various groups in West Africa.
By the late '80s, he had journeyed to Paris where he hooked up with a group called Fatala, who played traditional Guinean repertoire. One unforgettable album was recorded for Peter Gabriel's Real World label, which led to extensive touring, including Canada. Diallo settled in British Columbia in 1991.
Since then Diallo has become the best known exponent of African music on Canada's West coast. He's won three Junos, and released his sixth solo album, Imme in February. Though he's always experimented with diverse instrumental voices in his music, Diallo remains famous for his guitar-driven sound.
His guitars have changed over the years. "I stopped playing nylon guitar in 2001. I use different guitars now ― Godin and Gibson ― though I like the nylon strings for some songs. It has a special, sweet sound." The nylon models of the Quebec-based Godin are particularly suited to African music, he says. Diallo has always played both electric and acoustic. He's not fussy with effects, though many of his influences, notably Diabate, regularly indulge in Hendrixian flights of fancy. "Sometimes I use reverb, some delay, and a volume pedal. But I don't use too many effects, because African people are always trying to imitate the sound of an instrument; these are very natural sounds."
Worldwide, Diallo is best known for his participation in African Guitar Summit, which has released two albums, toured extensively, and played Live 8. Composed of Canadian musicians who hail from all across Africa, Diallo was a natural choice as a featured soloist. "On those albums I played a lot of lead guitar; I was comfortable playing the music by all those other guys. Madagascar Slim is a heavy blues player. [Ottawa singer Mighty] Popo and myself have a lot of different influences. African Guitar Summit brings a lot of different styles and motivations that we share in Canada."
Diallo keeps striving. "There's always something to learn, there are millions of styles of music in this world, even in Africa there's such different types of music, singing, languages and so on. I just want to learn."