Malian music with a world of influences |

Malian music with a world of influences

Stewart Oksenhorn
Malian singer-guitarist Habib Koit leads his band Bamada to a concert at the Wheeler Opera House this week. Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn.

Following “Fatma,” a nine-minute track from his 2003 live CD “Fôly!” singer-guitarist Habib Koité thanks the audience in German and English. In concert, Koité is known to slip phrases from whatever country he is playing into his lyrics. Considering that Koité and his six-piece band, Bamada, have performed in Brazil and Japan, and throughout Europe and Africa, since 1995, that’s a lot of foreign phrases. Koité sings in Mandingue, the language of his village of Keyes, is fluent in French, the principal language of his native country of Mali, and speaks passable, if halting and heavily accented, English.

Such linguistic versatility, though, is nothing compared to his musical sweep. The music Koité makes with Bamada can sound like a modernized take on traditional African sounds. On “Fôly!” the tunes are long and flowing, based on repetitive rhythms, and feature such sounds as the balafon, a cousin of the vibraphone, and multiple percussion instruments. But underneath that surface are such touches as bluesy harmonica, violin parts, and instrumental jams with a dynamic interplay between Koité’s guitar and bandmate Kélétugui Diabaté’s violin. Koité may be descended from a long line of Malian griots, singers who use music to tell age-old tribal stories, but his musical view is expansive.”I am inspired from traditional music. And I use it in a traditional way,” said the 46-year-old Koité by phone, during a tour stop in central California. “But I mix it with my own experience, my own world of music. Because I’m open to all kinds of music.”The first music to fall on Koité’s ears was sung by his mother, a griot who sang ceremonial music at weddings and baptisms. On the advice of an uncle (who played the kamale n’goni, a four-stringed instrument associated with Mali’s Wassolou region), Koité enrolled in high school at the National Institute of Arts in the capital city of Bamako. There, Koité studied Western classical music, which quickly became as much of an influence as the tribal singing he had grown up with.

“All the music I learned was important for the traditional string instruments,” said Koité, who leads Bamada to a concert Tuesday, March 15, at the Wheeler Opera House. “Because there were no books for the traditional music, so there was no other way to learn the traditional music – nobody ever wrote it down. When we studied classical music, how to play it, how to see it, that allowed me to be what I am now.”Koité, however, is not merely the byproduct of those two influences. In school, his instrument was guitar, so Koité also looked to the guitarists – Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour – who were most popular in West Africa. Later on, Koité got turned on to jazz. And in his 15-year stretch, from 1980-95, playing the various clubs around Bamako, he would make it a point to learn songs from all the musicians he’d play with, a group that included Europeans, Americans and Africans from outside of Mali.”They’d ask me to play their music, and I’d ask them to bring it to me, and the next week we’d play it,” said Koité. “That gave me a lot of experience.”

Koité never set foot outside of Mali until 1984, when he was 26, and he didn’t travel outside of Africa to play music until six years later. Still, when he set out on an international career, beginning with festival appearances in Europe in the early ’90s, he brought with him a sound that was accessible to audiences around the world. Among his fans is Bonnie Raitt, who had Koité contribute to her “Silver Lining” CD. Raitt also traveled to Mali to visit and play with Koité several years ago, and spent a day with Koité last week in California.In recent years, Koité has narrowed his musical focus. After using influences from Europe and the United States to create an international sound, Koité now aims to make a pan-Malian style. In Mali, he notes, the music can have vast differences from one region, even one village, to the next. Koité is trying to incorporate all those regional dialects into his music. After dabbling in electric guitar for many years, Koité now plays only the acoustic guitar, which he says is closer to traditional Malian string instruments. He refers to his style as danssa doso: Danssa is the rhythm of his native village; doso is the hunter’s music that is one of the cornerstones of Malian culture. The two terms placed together indicates Koité’s intentions.”I put these two words together to symbolize the music of all ethnic groups of Mali,” he said in the press notes that accompany “Fôly!” “I’m curious about all the music in the world, but I make music from Mali. Usually, Malian musicians play only their own ethnic music, but me, I go everywhere. My job is to take all these traditions and to make something with them, to use them in my music.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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