Malians Habib Koité and Oumou Sangare, two of today’s finest world music acts
Habib Koité and Oumou Sangare, from the West African nation of Mali, are two bright lights illuminating the cultural amalgamation of history and “herstory”—the tradition of the motherland told from a uniquely urban perspective. This Saturday, stopping through on a worldwide tour, a bill featuring Koité and Sangare will deliver music that is a feast for the senses.
In 1988, Koité brought together childhood friends and other musicians to form Bamada, or “mouth of the crocodile,” a name derived from Mali’s capital Bamako, or “the river of crocodiles.” That group includes Souleymane Ann on drums and vocals, Abdoul Wahab Berthe on bass and Boubacar Sidibe on guitar, harmonica and vocals.
Koité and Bamada’s current Putumayo Artists release, Ma Ya, looks at Mali from a contemporary perspective. On it, Koité questions the plight of Africa through the song “Kumbin": “You remain a foreigner in a faraway land / When you use the fork and everyone else the hand.”
Koité developed his style from studying in Bamako. There, he became versed in the classic Western style of music. After four years at the National Institute of Arts, he went on to adapt an approach in which the guitar is used in place of more traditional Malian string instruments such as the Kamala N’goni, or youth’s harp. Just as the new generation searched for a fresh sound, Koité and Sangare both searched for their own sound to reflect a new interpretation of Malian music.
Sangare’s debut album, Moussolou (Women), was released in 1991, when she was 21 years old. Ko Sira (Marriage Today) followed in 1993. In 1996, her third album, Worotan (Ten Cola Nuts, the traditional price for a Malian bride) further addressed the repression that many African women have known. (All three discs are available from World Circuit/Nonesuch.)
Sangare’s success has traveled oceans and has landed on such projects as the soundtrack for Beloved, Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel. She is both treasured and rivaled because of the controversy she has created by demanding women’s rights. The Historical Dictionary of Mali asserts that her popularity is in part because “… she has promoted issues of deep concern to African women, such as free choice of husbands and being respected by men for their accomplishments.”
Sangare has challenged the viability of arranged marriages and polygamy through her music and performances. She has an intimate perspective on this issue, as she was a daughter in a polygamous family. Based on her experiences, she insists that polygamy weakens the family through rivalry and jealousy.
Koité and Sangare were both born into an ancestral legacy of performance (both had parents that either sang or played instruments) and cultural commentary. The French term griot, in Mali, refers to the historical legacy of the Dyeliu—Africans who were usually servants to nobles in the same way that minstrels in medieval Europe were used for entertaining through storytelling, song and dance.
Today in Mali, Dyeliu are the proponents of oral history, though it is questionable how much was skewed because of the nature of their place as paid entertainers. Still, their reputation is one of inhibition, freedom of expression, slander and praise. Koité and Sangare have taken these characteristics and have created a new mélange that both questions and embraces historical traditions.
Habib Koité and Oumou Sangare are perfect examples of what tradition can incite in a thoughtful, young generation. They embrace the positive attributes of their culture while challenging the negatives; they create a hybrid music that rallies for social humanitarianism and uses past knowledge as a steppingstone to musical euphoria.