Habib Koite’, of Mali by way of Senegal, with his band Bamada, is one of my most beloved and favorite musicians. In the past I’ve bought doubles of his CDs because I wear them out with constant play.
He’s one of those externally beautiful people whose angelic visage seems to communicate the positivity flowing beneath the surface.
He plays his guitar in a beautifully unique way; he tunes his instrument to the pentatonic scale and plays on open strings, which is how one plays on the kamale n’goni, N’goni are traditional West African rhythm harps.
The n’goni have been in existence since 1352, in the court of Mansa Musa, the great ruler of Mali. It is believed to have evolved into the banjo in North America after Mande people were exported there as slaves.
There are three main types, the djeli, the donso and the kamale.
The djeli n’goni were traditionally used by griots to accompany singing. The donso (hunter’s harp) are larger than the kamale n’goni and have six strings,
The smaller kamale n’goni (young man’s harp) have four or eight strings and are tuned a fourth higher than other n’goni.
They are a more modern addition to the West African stringed instrument family, introduced in the 1960s and made popular in the 80s and 90s in the Wassalou style of music,
In Habib Koite’s songs and style of playing you can hear a blend of the Malian Wassoulou and dannsa musical styles, as well as African-American blues, and Spanish flamenco.
In fact, in 1999 Habib and American bluesman Eric Bibb toured in support of the Putumayo compilation Mali to Memphis, which celebrated and paid tribute to the connections between Malian and American blues music.
The predominant style played by Habib is based on the danssa, a popular rhythm from his native city of Keyes. He calls his version danssa doso, a Bambara term he coined that combines the name of the popular rhythm with the word for hunter’s music (doso), one of Mali’s most powerful and ancient musical traditions. “I put these two words together to symbolize the music of all ethnic groups in Mali. I’m curious about all the music in the world, but I make music from Mali. In my country, we have so many beautiful rhythms and melodies. Many villages and communities have their own kind of music. 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.”–Habibkoite.com
Music critics worldwide have dubbed Koite a modern griot; this isn’t far-fetched as he hails from “a noble line of Khassonké griots, , traditional troubadours who provide wit, wisdom and musical entertainment at social gatherings and special events.” (http://www.ifas.org.za/)
I’ve heard fans describe him and his band as “West African Sufis” for the vibrant spiritual quality of their sound.
I don’t know if there is some factual basis to that opinion, but I do know how uplifted and soothed I feel when I listen to, sing, or dance to their music.
The song I’m featuring here, “Sirata” is one of my all-time favorites.
It was featured on “Mali to Memphis” as well as Koite’s 2001 CD “Ma Ya”.
It’s not a lullaby, but can lull you with its spiritual, somehow healing beauty. This song, has been known to drive grown men to tears. Yes–for real!
My son, Ibrahim, now 12, and I saw Koite’ and Bamada perform at Wolf Trap in the late winter of 2005. Ibrahim was under two years old then; it was his first concert, other than those of his Guinean dancer/drummer/ fire-eater father’s, which he attended as an infant.
Our seats were in the front row. He was transfixed!
At first Ibrahim sat next to me, but when the entire audience got up to dance and stayed up for the rest of the concert, he attached himself to me.
He spent the rest of the night dancing and swaying with me, his legs wrapped around my waist or hip, his eyes trained on the stage.
At one point Habib Koite and Ibrahim locked eyes as Habib leaned down and played his guitar directly to him.
He nodded to me and smiled, then moved on. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say I felt we’d been blessed.
Days later Ibrahim asked for both a guitar and a balafon.
How could I say no?
Habib Koite latest album, Soô (which translates to home) was released in 2014. Soô takes a direct and loving look at Koite’s homeland of Mali, a country torn apart by violence and terrorism over the last few years.
The title of the CD also symbolizes the dream of home for a man who makes his fortune away from friends and family for long stretches of time.
Ever the touring road warriors, Koite and the new lineup of his band, Bamada, are in the midst of a world tour.
I hope to take Ibrahim to one of their U.S. shows in 2016, in either Washington, DC or Raleigh, NC.
In May of 2015 they performed at the Africa Festival in Germany. The 90 minute video below showcases their performance.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The embedded videos below were removed because the Automatic Play option could not be disabled. Click the link below to enjoy the concert and the bonus interview in full.)
Enjoy! Be well!
~Maura Alia Badji