Sounds of Afriki
Malian superstar Habib Koité talks about music, Africa and touring the world
Habib Koité is arguably the most famous musician to come out of the West African nation of Mali. Born into a line of griots, or “praise singers” (similar to Celtic bards), who pass on an extensive knowledge of their culture orally through poetry and song, Koité learned to play the guitar (tuned in his own unique way, to the pentatonic scale) as a child while accompanying his griot mother as she performed.
The strikingly handsome 51-year-old has performed all over the world with his band Bamada, which he founded in 1988 with musical friends he’s known since childhood. Popular in Europe and Africa for close to 20 years, Koité caught on as a rising world-music star in the United States about 10 years ago, thanks to the Putamayo release Ma Ya, which was featured in Rolling Stone magazine. American blues heavyweights Bonnie Raitt and Eric Bibb have performed with Koité.
He and Bamada—which includes Malian balafon star Kélétigui Diabaté—are touring in support of their latest album, Afriki. The CN&R caught up to Koité recently while on tour in Europe.
CN&R: Where are you right now on your European tour? How many days of the year are you on the road?
Habib Koité: Right now we are in Prague, a lovely city. Tonight we play at the Palác Akropolis. We are on the road much of the year playing shows. We do around 75 to 100 shows a year. Someone said recently that I’ve done almost 1,000 concerts. I can barely believe it.
How do European audiences compare to American audiences as far as receptivity to your music?
European audiences are not that much different than the audiences in America. I’m playing for the people. Everyone likes the music. The real difference is when I am playing for African audiences or people who really know African music. We play the same music, but what changes is the spirit of the musicians. When I play for the American audience I think they don’t know the diversity of African music and so I want to give more. To share more. In Mali, they know. In Africa, when I play something from Niafunke [in Mali], the northern Malian people recognize it. When I play the song “Namania,” a girl may get up and dance with the rhythm because it is based on the traditional Dansa. It is like that.
Do you have a funny or touching story to tell about something that has happened so far on your current tour?
This tour has really just started, so I will share a story from another tour. It was in Austria. We were giving a concert in front of an enthusiastic audience and just in front of the stage we saw a white woman who moved, who danced very well. In general all the band is checking the audience during the concert to look for people we would like to invite on stage. Towards the end of the concert, my percussionist reached out to her, offering to pull her up on stage, and to our surprise we heard something hit the floor, and the woman was trying to climb up but now with difficulty. … The lady was in fact with only one leg, and had a wooden leg. But the woman really wanted to come on stage to dance … not easy and heavy for us but we finally got her up and someone passed her leg up. Once she was back on both feet she danced so beautifully.
What is the primary message you are trying to get across in your latest album Afriki?
I think the main message is about life in Africa. Things are beautiful, difficult, complicated and hopeful. The song “Africa” tells a lot of the story.
Tell me about the song “Africa”—what do you hope that listeners will come away with after listening to that song—if they understand the words, or if they don’t?
“Africa” is basically the title song of the album—“Afriki” in Bambara—it speaks about Africa in the past, a land of hospitality, a land of great attraction, that brought explorers and adventurers who came to discover the continent. We say that the Africans were mostly peaceful, and welcomed these visitors from Europe who came to discover. They were well looked after. They were welcomed. And once they were welcomed, they installed themselves, and at a certain point they began to enrich themselves with what they found there. They relied on deceptions. They were tricky. They behaved tactfully, but with self-serving intent. There were many who did that. There were many who used that sort of approach to get what they wanted in Africa. And if they had to, they used force to get what they wanted. I’m speaking about the colonialists in general. And now, when the sons of Africa wanted to go themselves outside, they were surprised to find the doors closed. “Please, you do not enter here.” So the song talks about that … the moment when the children of Africa discover that other people are not like them. We welcomed them, we were open to them, but now, they close the door on us. Each African must be aware. Everyone must think about the best future for Africa, and understand that it is in his or her hands—Not to think that it is someone else who is going to solve it. No. It is you. You yourself.
In “Nta Dima,” why did you choose to use antelope horns as part of the instrumentation? How does that further the message of the song?
The antelope horns are a very traditional style of music that makes me think of the old ways … what is important. The song is about a man being asked to give his daughter up for marriage. “Nta Dima” means “I will not give her to you.” I thought of my own daughter and all that I would want to ask someone who came for her. It is a very normal thing for fathers to go through, making sure their child will be taken care of. In the song I say, “I am not going to give my daughter to someone who is not a farmer. If you are not a farmer, you will die during a famine. Always, you’ll be hungry because you don’t have rice and millet at home to eat.” A man must be at home at night with his wife, for a normal life. I talk about people who are seeking the hand of a girl in marriage. So of course, the griots are going to ask a lot of questions about this person’s family. If you come and ask me to give you my daughter, I’m going to ask who are you who wants my daughter? So there’s a lot of humor and joking in the song.
You recorded Afriki in three places—Mali, Belgium and Vermont. How did the particular recording location affect the songs recorded in that place?
Each place has its own feel, but they share things too. I was lucky to bring my sound engineer to each location so the quality was consistent. What was great was to work with different musicians in Bamako [Mali] and Vermont. We went to Vermont because Cumbancha, my record label, is there. It’s very rural where they are and they actually work out of a barn! The recording studio is next door with beautiful landscape out the windows. Early morning, when I was leaving for my plane, it was dark and five deer crossed the road in front of us so it’s really not much different from Mali!
You’ve played with American blues artists Eric Bibb and Bonnie Raitt—what common ground do you see between traditional Malian music and American blues?
This music arrived in the USA by African slaves, with a feeling of nostalgia for the country that has been left by the ancestors. Everyone has brought his roots, culture … So you can find for sure some similitude with some African music, especially from the desert. It’s also a music played by people who have a certain freedom. In Africa, in Mali, the blues is played especially in the north areas, in the desert by people free, they play alone, for the wind, for the birds or in the companies of other people like a friendly moment in the day. In the U.S., the blues was played by people who had not a nice life and this music gave to them probably a moment of freedom, during which they can express all their feelings. There are also commonalities in the musical way. The blues is played in pentatonic … like all the music from the desert. The similarities are real.
Are you working on a new album right now?
I’m staying open to new sounds and always living music, but right now the focus is on touring.
How often do you go back home to Mali? When was the last time you were there? How are things back home?
I go back every other month or so. It’s a long time to be [away] from home and then I go back on tour so soon. Just before this tour started I was home for a month for the new year. Life is good at home but when I go home everyone wants to invite me to their house to eat and drink tea. I get fat!
Which young Malian musicians are you particularly excited about?
Adama Yolamba is one of my favorite young musicians. He plays the n’goni [lute] so beautifully.
Are there little Habibs waiting in the wings? Do you have children, and are they musically involved?
I have two children, a son and a daughter. My daughter is going to school right now and my son is interested in computers. They have talent in music so we’ll see. I am not pushing them.
How would you sum up in one sentence what you hope to achieve with your music?
That’s a tough thing to sum up. I’d say to share the beauty of Malian music with people all over the world
Anything else you’d like to say?
I’m very much looking forward to playing for you in Chico!