As a youngster growing up in Guinea, West Africa, Alpha Yaya Diallo took in a lot of culture. His traveled around the country with his father, an in-demand doctor, and was exposed to musical influences from the Susu, Mandinka, and his own Fulani people. He also spent time in nearby Senegal, where mbalax dance music was all the rage, and heard the sounds emanating from Cape Verde and the Caribbean.
He absorbed it all like a sponge.
"There's a lot of different types of music in Africa," he points out on a call from his Burnaby home, "it's a big continent. I started playing guitar at age seven, and listening to everything from local music to rhumba to guitar players like young Mark Knopfler or George Benson--all those guys."
Diallo moved from Africa to Europe in 1991 and joined a band called Fatala in Netherlands that got picked up by Peter Gabriel's label, Real World. Bolstered by that signing, the group toured North America, and that's when Diallo first laid eyes on his future home of Vancouver, where he landed in the summer of '91.
"I stayed here to teach African music workshops," he says, "then I met some people and I decided just to stay in Vancouver for good. I've been here for a long time now, and I'm glad I stayed, because it allowed me to know the country. I traveled every corner of Canada, from Vancouver to Newfoundland, the Yukon, Yellowknife. I know Canada more than many Canadians."
A good part of Diallo's cross-Canada travels involved playing folk festivals in Edmonton and Ottawa and jazz fests in Toronto and Montreal. He'll be continuing his festival-going ways with two mainstage appearances, and a workshop, at the upcoming Festival du Bois, the family-oriented Francophone music festival taking place at Mackin Park in Coquitlam. It'll be his third appearance at the annual event.
As well as being a fixture on Canada's live-music scene, Diallo has made a splash in the recording world. His 1998 album, The Message, won a Juno for Best Global Recording, and three years later he took that category again with The Journey. In 2005 he scored a third Juno nod when African Guitar Summit--which saw him in the company of fellow pickers Madagascar Slim, Donne Roberts, and Pa Joe--was voted World Music Album of the Year.
That album was followed in 2006 by African Guitar Summit II, and a highly successful tour of the United States. So is there any chance of a third African Guitar Summit platter?
"Well, we're talking about it," says Diallo, "but everyone has a project, and right now I'm focusing on my new album. Probably when we do that we'll see, but we were talking about it, for sure."
The new disc Diallo hopes to have out by this is produced by Malian multi-instrumentalist Ahmed Fofana, who plays ngoni and kora on it. As well as singer-guitarist Diallo, the album features African musicians Adama Bilaro Dembele on percussion, Naby Camara on balafon, Etienne Mangala on bass, Knowledge Majonik on drums, and Madagascar Slim on guitar. Local crooner Janelle Reid performs on two tracks, and rapper Ndidi Cascade does her thing on two others.
"It talks about a lot of things," says Diallo of the lyrical side of his new project, "like what's going on right now. These whole things we're seeing, after COVID we now have war in Ukraine, and I'm gonna talk about all the challenges we're having right now, from disease to war to politics to climate change. We are facing a lot of challenges."
Over the years Diallo has performed and/or recorded with the likes of David Lindley, Thomas Mapfumo, Jimmy Cliff, Third World, Burning Spear, and Vancouver's Paperboys. When asked to name some of the local players he's come to admire most, Diallo doesn't lean toward world-music artists like himself. Surprisingly, he goes more for the local rockers and bluesmen.
"Well I like people who sing and play guitars," he says, "I like artists like that. You know, I listen to Bryan Adams a lot, I listen to--who's that big star, a blues player, local guy. What's his name? Oh yeah--Colin James. And I like Bruce Cockburn too, that's another Canadian guy I like."
As well as winning several major awards for his music over the years, Diallo has garnered a lot of critical praise for his smooth, seemingly effortless guitar playing, some of which he performs on a Quebec-made, Godin Multiac Gypsy Jazz Guitar. He's also been known to mess around on a Fender Stratocaster, like many of the biggest guitar heroes around. But he claims that his favourite axemen are too numerous to mention.
"There's a bunch of them because my style is mixed," he explains, "it's from Western blues, African blues, to flamenco style, because I play electric, acoustic, and nylon-style classical guitars. So I can say millions of guitar players I like to hear."
For his mainstage performances at Festival du Bois Diallo will be joined by his band, which includes the above-mentioned rhythm section of bassist Mangala and drummer Majonik, plus keyboardist Joshua Amadine and singer-dancer N'Nato Camara. He describes the music he's playing these days as "Afro-pop".
"It's an African groove," he notes, "but with a little bit of everything. There's, you know, funk, blues. and really sometimes it's a mix. We have some acoustic songs accompanied by traditional instruments, but sometimes we do really upbeat, very danceable music too. There can be a lot of energy."
Alpha Yaya Diallo performs on the Festival du Bois mainstage on April 2 at 5:30 pm and April 3 at 2:15 pm, and leads a workshop at Mackin House on April 2 at 1:30 pm.