Go anywhere in Mali and people will fall over themselves to tell you how great Habib Koite is. Whether on guitar, flute, vocals or one of the seemingly hundreds of other instruments he plays, he is a musician to the core. He has the charisma to match so why is it so few people outside Mali know his name? Malian singer and guitarist Habib Koité’s new album, Afriki, has been a long time coming. It’s been six years in fact since his sophisticated pan-Malian album Baro, the critically well-received release that saw him break through in a big way in America, playing in front of packed houses and receiving plaudits from some of that country’s leading commentators and artists, including Bonnie Raitt (with whom Habib worked). There was even a slightly incongruous comparison by Raitt between Koité’s warm, eloquent acoustic guitar picking and Jimi Hendrix in Rolling Stone magazine.
Habib confessed to me, “I’m very honoured of course and I consider Bonnie Raitt as my sister so I’m very moved. I grew up listening to pop and rock so it’s a wonderful compliment. I wouldn’t compare my style to Hendrix technically speaking and people who listen to my guitar playing might not make the link with Hendrix’s playing, but he had a huge influence over all guitarists around the world of course as he opened news horizons for the instrument.” I ask Habib if his popularity in the States is a deliberate strategy, because although he does well in Europe, he is often considered a lesser artist to big West African guns such as Salif Keita and Youssou N’dour in the UK. “It’s true in fact, but this wasn’t planned,” he replies. “It’s probably due to the fact that my manager is in Europe. it naturally got me to widen my horizons and play in Europe and then in the States more often. My relationship with the American label Putumayo, who had released some of my previous albums obviously helped spread my music in North America. It’s hard to say with the UK — it’s true that the UK is one place where I toured in the past, but not as much as in other European countries and now the situation forcing Malian musicians to go to Dakar to get their work visas makes it difficult for Malian musicians to tour in the UK. Let’s hope it gets solved soon.”
If there’s one album that might see Habib Koité break through in the UK, it’s the carefully-crafted Afriki, which sees Habib taking on the more traditional approach that appeals to British audiences, and the welcome addition of female-backing harmonies to set off Koité’s smooth vocals. “Afriki has a lot of different elements from the great Malian tradition of music because this is the music I grew up with,” explains Habib. “Even if my music contains other influences like jazz, rock, pop, Latin, tradition is also an essential influence and I listen to a lot of traditional music so you will not always hear it as I blend it with other influences, but it’s definitely there. In my previous albums, I didn’t incorporate female vocalists at all but I wanted to broaden the spectrum of my music with Afriki. So I added these to try new experiences with these female griots from the the Mandinka tradition — to bring a new flavour to my music.”
And what a satisfying flavour it is, easily the most interesting and varied album yet from Koité, with some great rolling Mandé grooves but with Habib retaining the smooth, melodic, Westernised values that’s a result of his multifaceted background.
“I was actually born in Senegal as my father was working for the train industry there. When I was one, my family moved to Kaye in Mali [near the border with Senegal] and two years afterwards, the whole family moved to Bamako — this is where I grew up. My music is made of several influences as I spent fifteen years playing in clubs in Mali and got in contact with many different styles, not only from Mali, but from Africa, also from rock, pop, Latin music. All these different influences have blended into my music.”
That blend works particularly well on Nta Dima on the new album, through the use of the entrancing, other-worldly sound of five antelope horns. What prompted their use? “I wanted to have this horn section in one of the songs in Afriki,” Habib explains. “These voices of five horns are very interesting and play cyclically. It’s a very old tradition from Mali. I talked to the musicians and they told me that the new generation is not learning how to play these so there is a risk that this tradition will disappear, unfortunately. This is also why I wanted to preserve them through my record.”
Another traditional sound is the melancholy tone of sokou (traditional violin) playing by the late Hassey Sarré on Barra. “Hassey was a great musician from Niafunke and he died too soon, sadly. He died before being able to listen to the finished album. Hassey opened my ears to the music of Niafunke and I spent a lot of time with him. He enabled me to understand this music which has been popularised by such greats as Ali Farka Touré and Afel Bocoum and in which sokou — a traditional violin he was playing — plays an important role. In concert, I play Hassey’s parts myself with the guitar as an homage.”
I ask Habib about the themes of the songs on the album. Many appear to be about love and family. “Yes, but I would say I wanted to focus on my land, Africa and its evolution more generally. I talk about Mali of course and I wanted to analyse Africa’s forces and weaknesses. I want to understand how we could solve the problems that the continent is facing. So many African people are risking their lives to emigrate to Europe or the USA and my goal is to change mentalities and see how we could work on building a new stronger Africa.”
With that outlook, some wonderful musical moments and a planned promotional tour that will take in the UK early in 2008, Afriki has the makings of being the album that sees Habib Koité really break into the top division of roots-based Malian music. I politely request that we don’t wait six years till the next one. “I promise — I am working on finding a way to tour and work on new projects at the same time. I now have some software that enables me to work on my music on the laptop while I’m travelling so that should speed up the process. After the last album I started to get very busy touring and time has flown too quickly, I was out of Mali for long periods of time and I’m also trying to have a family life, so these elements combined left me with little time to record music. The ideas were there but I’ve had little time to implement them and record Afriki. We basically recorded the album over several months and we used different locations following my schedule. I recorded in Mali with the local Malian musicians of course and I also used a studio in Europe — where my manager is based — as it was more practical. And also Cumbancha’s [Habib’s record label] studios in Vermont. But I’m sure you won’t have to wait another 6 years for the next one!”
This feature first appeared on www.flyglobalmusic.com