This is a subtle and rewarding collection of Afropop tunes from Habib Koité, a promising young performer from Mali.
Born into a family of griots, or traditional musical “praise historians,” Koité is a classically trained guitarist whose playing reflects a blending of European and African picking styles, as well as African roots music, American soul and blues influences and Latin rhythms. He’s very popular in Europe, where his three albums all have topped the world music charts.
Baro is a studio album meant to showcase Koité's sparkling playing, intimate singing and haunting melodies. For those who think of African music as dominated by percussion, it may come as a surprise to hear these soulful, even reflective tunes.
Koité writes about important matters, and in fact the song that made him a star at home, “Cigarette A Bana” ("No More Cigarettes"), is a diatribe against the tobacco industry, which is now moving into Africa. There’s a new, Latin-style version of that tune here that really grooves, as does the Cuban-influenced “Batoumanbe.” And then there’s the entrancing “Sinama Denw,” about the difficulty of growing up in a family where there are two wives who don’t get along.
But the album is perhaps most impressive for the often stunning playing among the musicians in Bamada, Koité's band since 1988, including Kélétigui Diabaté, Mali’s master of the balafon, a West African wooden-keyed xylophone. These are musicians who can move between styles and genres effortlessly and with great dexterity.
None of the 13 tunes is in English, but fortunately Putamayo has packaged this album beautifully, providing background information on each song and translations of most.