I have an eclectic taste in music even though I started out listening to americana before there was the name and keep coming back to it. One non-americana music I have long enjoyed is from West Africa. And one of the best-known West African musicians is Habib Koite of Mali.
I first heard Habib when I was working in Mali in the late 1990s. Khalifa, my driver, had a steady supply of bootleg cassettes. Every time he played a song I liked; I would ask who it was by. Usually, it would be Habib and his band, Bamada.
The music is Malian, with a fusion vibe. It is joyous and celebratory and its complex arrangements make it effervescent, rather than light. This is partly on account of the traditional West African instruments, such as the kora and the balafon. The kora, a 21-stringed instrument, is related to both the harp and lute. The balafon is a close cousin to the xylophone.
Habib, who comes from a long line of jalis or troubadours who preserve Mali’s oral history and music, taught himself the guitar by watching his parents. Unlike most western guitarists, he tunes his guitar to the pentatonic scale and plays on open strings as one would a kamale n’goni, the traditional four-stringed instrument played by his grandfather.
But Habib made Malian music accessible to the world beyond West Africa, serving as a bridge between the rich musical traditions of Mali and those of Europe and the U.S. If lovers of americana find something familiar about his music, it’s because it shares the same roots.
One of those roots is the blues, the familial strains of which can be heard in Habib’s music. The late Ali Farka Toure, one of Mali’s best known and pioneering guitarists, once told me when I asked why his music sounded like the blues, “I only play traditional Malian music. Where do you think the blues come from?”
This point is stressed in The Blues, the 2003 documentary series produced by Martin Scorsese on the history of blues music. In the first episode ‘Feel Like Going Home’, Habib, Farka Toure and Salif Keita aka ‘Golden Voice of Africa’, are interviewed about the relationship between Mali and the blues. The link is also the basis of the Putamayo release, from ‘Mali to Memphis,’ which also includes Habib. Also Habib’s recording, ‘Brothers in Bamako,’ with the American blues musician, Eric Bibb, is a wonderful mix of Malian music and American blues and gospel. Bonnie Rait is also a fan of Habib’s, traveling to Bamako to meet him. They collaborated on the song, ‘Back Around’ on her album, ‘Silver Lining’. Jackson Browne also made his first trip to Africa to meet with Habib.
Habib, who has taught both Malian and Western music at Mali’s National Institute of Arts, is deeply influenced by danssa, the music of his native city Keyes, as well as doso, the popular rhythm of the hunter’s music. In Mali, the hunters are shamans organized into initiatic societies. Their music is one of the country’s oldest and most powerful traditions and is still very much alive.
Then there are the lyrics. Most of Habib’s songs are in Bambara, but even if you don’t know the language, the meaning often comes through. For example, ‘Wassiye’ always sounded like a love song to me and when I asked Habib if that was the case, he told me the story of its composition. He never thought he would meet anyone more beautiful than his wife, but, he paused, “then my daughter was born”. Even in translation Habib’s songs are poetic, full of imagery and myths. ‘Massakè’ is a lovely lesson on raising children, and ‘Africa’ is a lyrical plea for Africans to take their destiny in their own hands and celebrate being African. Overall though, Habib’s music about universality and joy.
As with most musicians, Habib is best experienced live and he is touring the UK this November.