Habib Koite: Chatting
Some of the parallels between African and “Western” music are glaringly obvious. The folk singers of Europe and the US gave rise to the mainly acoustic tradition of singer-songwriters. In Africa, the tradition of the griot storyteller has given rise to performers that clearly belong to the same family.
Habib Koité is an example. A child prodigy on the guitar, he was sent to the academy of Bamako in Mali, where he studied classical guitar under a respected elder of the Traoré clan and started researching Mali’s music. This led to adapting traditional music to the classical guitar. “The sound – and even the polyphony – of my right hand on the wood of the guitar gives a special tone. But what really makes it different is the intervals, the space between two notes. It’s like standing back to jump over a ditch.”
Surprisingly, he is one of the few performers to broach the different elements of Malian music. “There are a wide range of styles in Mali,” he explains. “The local music grew around specific instruments. If you go 100 kilometres further, people use different instruments with different tunings. So there has been very little blending of styles.” However, like many kids of his age, Koité grew up listening to Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix alongside the local music. “When I started playing, I really wanted to be a guitar hero,” he says laughing.
One of the tragedies of African music is that so few musicians can make a living in their home countries. Although TV stations and radios are quite supportive of local music, the support doesn’t go as far as actually paying authors’ rights. Rampant piracy also cuts out any chance of their selling music. “The only people who can survive are those that sign with European labels,” says Koité. “It’s a question of infrastructure. The only way to tour Africa, for example, is by going through France’s local cultural centres. They are the only ones to organise regular shows in proper theatres that pay musicians.”
Koité recorded his third album, “Bora” (“chatting”), in Brussels. His distinctive, gentle grooves are backed by an acoustic band that includes guitar and a battery of traditional instruments. In a surprisingly high-pitched voice he tells tales of village banter, boys learning to smoke and fables. There is also a light salsa (“Cigarette a Bana”). “It’s a homage to all these great Cuban musicians such as Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo who waited all these years for glory and the joy of playing. It’s never too late. It’s great to see that, it’s encouraging for the young musicians.”