Habib Koité: Mixing tradition with modernity
Malian superstar Habib Koité was born to parents from the Griot tradition of West African praise singing. As a Jeli, a type of Griots who stem from the former Malian Empire, Koité reportedly says he was never taught to sing or play guitar; the skills just washed off on him.
Koité’s unique style of playing guitar – tuned to a pentatonic scale and played on open strings – was developed while accompanying his mother, a professional vocalist. But it was his uncle who insisted he go to the National Institute of Arts in Bamako, Mali, where he studied music and in a mere six months was named conductor of the school band. Today, Koité’s West African super-group Bamada (a nickname for Bamako residents that translates to “in the mouth of the crocodile,”) can hardly crowd onto a small stage; his music is a subtle, soulful mixture that includes such diverse sounds as flamenco and blues.
Though he comes from the Griot tradition, Koité has embraced numerous musical styles and created something uniquely cosmopolitan. This rich mixture pushed Koité onto the world stage in the early ’90s. His 1999 release of “Ma Ya” and stage appearances with the likes of Bonnie Raitt raised his profile even further.In the latest edition of Vanity Fair magazine, a photo of Koité playing guitar in the sands of a Malian oasis led the publication’s story on Africa’s Festival in the Desert. And though Western audiences appreciate the comparisons to British bluesman Eric Clapton, Africans compare Koité to the likes of their own superstars Ali Farka Touré and Youssou N’Dour.In Mali, many of the smallest communities have their own music and oral tradition, often kept by the local Griot. As Koité has traveled the globe, his music has grown and embraced other styles. Still, he remains rooted in the Griot tradition and weaves in the sounds he discovers along the way.
The Aspen Writers’ Foundation presents Habib Koité in a solo performance Monday, June 25, at 10 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen.Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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