Durham kora player Mamadou Diabate earned his invitation to the Grammy Awards on his own, nominated for his music. But actually getting out to Los Angeles for Sunday night's ceremony took the kindness of strangers -- and it was worth his while, because Diabate won the Grammy for Traditional World Music Album.
"I was surprised," Diabate said when reached by phone late Sunday. "In the Grammy category, there are no losers. Just getting nominated is a big step, and I appreciated getting the nomination. We are all winners, not everybody gets the chance even to get their name up for a Grammy."
Making it out to Los Angeles proved to be a major ordeal, however. This was Diabate's second Grammy nomination -- he lost to his cousin, Toumani Diabate, in the same category in 2006 -- and he originally hadn't planned to attend.
But his wife persuaded him to put off a scheduled trip to his native Mali, and he made plans to go to Los Angeles. Then the weather intervened.
Diabate was in New York City last week and had to fly home to Durham, where he was scheduled to catch a Saturday flight to Los Angeles. But the weekend snowstorm canceled all flights out of RDU. So Diabate hit the road for Atlanta, where a late-night flight awaited.
"I rented a big SUV because I knew it would not be easy to drive in the snow," he said. "And it spun off the road. A couple of guys stopped to help me get back on the road. If not for them, I would not have made it. No way."
The drive to Atlanta took 8 1/2 hours, followed by a cross-country flight to Los Angeles. By the time Diabate rolled into the Staples Center for the ceremony, he was just happy to be there.
Actually winning was a bonus. Making it all the sweeter, his winning album, "Douga Mansa," is a tribute to Diabate's father and grandfather.
"It was a miracle for me," Diabate said. "The thought of winning never crossed my mind. I am truly blessed and happy."