Singer and guitarist Habib Koité plays a superior blend of smooth, melodic pan-Malian music that has arguably been a mite too restrained on previous albums compared to his live performances, and his voice - although a perfectly fine instrument - can lack the emotional depth of many of his famed countrymen.
But there's a real sense of progress about his carefully-crafted new album Afriki, with an extra rhythmic and traditional instrumental edge to most songs, and the addition of female backing harmonies to set off Koité's smooth vocals. Liberal use of balafon, ngoni, djembé drum and other traditional percussive instruments provide a grit to songs which might in the past have been smoothed out by Western arrangements.
Barra works particularly well, possessing a rolling Mande groove and the melancholy tone of sokou (traditional violin) playing by the late Hassey Sarré. Nta Dima takes the traditional approach even further through the entrancing, other-worldly sound of five antelope horns, rudimentary percussion and call and response vocals. All this plus Koité's famed guitar playing, a sing-song blend of African and Western acoustic pop/rock music with a strength of melody and rhythmic purpose which means that the result is rarely as bland as that description might sound, in particular when Koité dances around the rockier moments from the rhythm section. The delightful Massaké is one such example, a track which also benefits from some joyful vocal interplay between Koité and his backing singers. There are a number of tracks where Koité reverts to a straight, Westernised African sound, but even these usually work well, the title track being the only time when the album retreats too far into the safe territory of pleasant but all too generic Afropean pop. Overall, though, Afriki has the makings of being the album that sees Habib Koité break further into the top division of roots-based Malian music.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.