Habib Koité

Habib Koité: the modern griot


Born in 1958, Habib Koité comes from a noble line of Khassonké griots, an ethnic group from the Kayes region of Western Mali. His passion for music came from his grandfather who played the “kamale n’goni”, a four-stringed traditional instrument associated with the hunters of the Wassolou region.
He developed his particular guitar playing by accompanying his mother, who sang in the traditional ceremonies. “Nobody not really taught me to sing or play the guitar…” says Habib. “I watched my parents, and this has rubbed off on me”. In an interview with A-Lyric, he admitted that when young, he was as interested in playing like Jimi Hendrix as playing Malian music.

Although he studied to become an engineer, he enrolled at the Institut National des Arts (INA) in Bamako, Mali. He studied music for four years, topping his class in 1982. After his graduation, the INA immediately hired him as a guitar teacher. He filled this position until 1998.

Habib Koité and Mali

Habib has sung and played with a variety of Malian artists, including Toumani Diabaté and Kélétigui Diabaté. He sang and played on the legendary Toumani Diabaté album “Shake the World” (in 1991). Kélétigui Diabaté joined Habib and is now a member of his group. In 1988, he formed his band Bamada (nickname given to residents of Bamako reflected literally by “in the mouth of the crocodile”) with young Malian musicians, friends since childhood.

In 1991, Habib went to Perpignan (France) and won the first prize of the Voxpole festival, which allowed him to finance the production of two songs. One of the songs, “Cigarette A Bana (the Cigarette is finished)” was a big hit throughout West Africa. After the release of another single entitled “Nanale (the swallow)”, Habib received the prestigious “Découverte 1993” award from Radio France Internationale (RFI).

This and his meeting with Michel De Bock, the founder of the artistic agency Contre-Jour, led to Habib and Bamada undertaking their first tour out of Africa in the summer of 1994. The following year, Michel and Habib decided to work together in terms of management and production. “Muso Ko” of Habib Koité & Bamada album they recorded in the wake. This happened in March in Brussels to the Caribbean/Molière Studio (just like the 2 CDs that would follow).

Since then, Habib has become a reference on the European festival circuit, including: the festival de Jazz de Montreux, the MAD and the World Rots Festival, Couleur Café and Paléo Nyon.

Habib Koité

The second album by Habib “Ma Ya”, always produced by Contre-Jour, was released in 1998. He remained, an unprecedented three months in the first place of the Word Music radio charts in Europe. Tours and invitations to the biggest festivals occurred in testimony to this success.

In January 1999, “Ma Ya” was released in North America by PUTUMAYO World Music, which helped to permanently install Habib as one of the the most interesting new World music performers in this continent. My Ya reached position No. 1 and spent 20 weeks in the top 20 of the US “CMJ New World Music Chart”.

On tour in the USA in February 1999, for promoting US “MaYa” so that from the compilation “Mali to Memphis” (also produced by Putumayo), Habib Koitè and US bluesman Eric Bibb made re – discover the connections some between the Blues and Malian music. Still in 1999, after the now usual tour summer European, Habib Koité returned with Bamada (his band) to the USA, torching the scenes of festivals and concert halls.

The voice of Mali

In the spring of 2000 he has participated as a guest with the legendary free jazz group: “Art Ensemble of Chicago”. In the fall of 2000, Habib shared the stage with Ourmou Sangare, one of the most popular African Western artists during a North American tour entitled “Voice of Mali”. This tour was a considerable success.

Like Oumou Sangare, Habib quickly gained public recognition, is creating new fans and proving once again, if this was necessary, that he is an artist with extraordinary potential.
In San Francisco and Los Angeles, Habib was joined onstage by Bonnie Raitt, who jammed with him for a conquered public.

The media impact of these tours was remarkable, in both Europe than in the US. Habib appeared in hundreds of newspapers and magazines, including: People Magazine, Rolling Stone, Le Monde, Songlines, De Standaard, Le Soir and the cover of Rhythm Magazine, to name a few.

Habib took the honours in the USA by national public radio, All things Considered, WXPN’s World Café, PRI’s The World, and The House of Blues Radio Hour “Mali to Memphis” special, as well as on major international programmes such as CNN WorldBeat. In Europe, the VRT (Flemish Belgian TV) and Arte stories as well as many radio stations have devoted in each country.

Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt went to Mali in the spring of 2000 to meet Habib (and other Malian artists) at Bamako, in Mandinka culture that Habib sings so fervently. His 3rd album, “Baro”, continued where Ma ago left us, with a set of haunting melodies and virtuoso guitar playing.

Habib is supported by Kélétigui Diabaté, the undisputed master Malian balafon (a xylophone keys wooden West African), who recorded with Lionel Hampton in the 1960s. The acoustic arrangements reflect centuries of tradition Malian music. By incorporating subtle Western influences, it creates songs that cling, to move on, the attention of a diverse audience.
BARO also includes a new version of Latin (in Spanish) of the first hit of Habib the having made famous in West Africa, “Cigarette A Bana”.

It is in this version a nod to the importance of the influence of Cuban music in Africa. Many exchanges between Cuba and the young independent States of Africa by the West (in the 1960s) have contributed greatly to its popularity.

Pentatonic scale

Habib has a unique and very personal guitar approach. He tunes his instrument to the pentatonic and plays on open strings like he would play on Malian traditional stringed instruments. At other times, Habib’s music sounds closer to the blues or flamenco, two styles he learned with Khalilou Traoré, a veteran of the legendary group Afro-Cubain “Maravillas of the Mali”. Unlike the griots, his way of singing is reserved and intimate, with variations in pace to the rhythm and melodies.

Mali has a rich and diverse musical tradition which varies greatly depending on the region and local cultures. Habib is unique because he draws on different music from different ethnicities that make up the country, creating a new trans-Malian approach that reflects his open-mindedness and his interest in any type of music.

The predominant style played by Habib is based on popular rhythms from his hometown Kayes. He calls his music ‘dansaa-doso’, a term of Bambara’s his invention, which combines the name of the popular rhythm with the word designating music hunters (doso), one of the oldest and most powerful musical traditions.

“I put these two words together to symbolize the music of all the ethnic groups in Mali,” he has said. “I’m curious about all the music, but I play Malian music. In my country, we have so many rhythms and beautiful melodies. Many villages and communities have their own music, but Malian musicians only play their own ethnic music. Me, I travel everywhere in the Malian musical heritage and my goal is to enhance all these traditions by integrating them into my music.”

With one foot firmly rooted in the past and the other resolutely ready to evolve in today’s world, Habib Koité is the artist of a generation that witnessed the fall of cultural barriers.
At the same time that he cherishes and respects the music of his ancestors, Habib plans and also hopes one day that village heads will communicate with the world from their hut thatched by Internet.

Habib music proves that we cannot abandon the past in order to grow, and that to ensure its benefits, the modern world needs to keep its links with folklore, as well as its mythology and its history of peoples to preserve his soul.

Homepage: Habib Koité

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