Habib Koité

Malian guitarist and singer rocks across cultures

Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2003

After one of his concerts, Bonnie Raitt once admiringly told West African guitarist Habib Koité, "I'd drink your sweat."

JAHC Director Sybil Davis is not interested in drinking sweat, but said when she saw Koité in a little California club, she knew she had to bring him to her home town.

"He was the real thing." Davis said. "He is unassuming and he just got down to playing his music."

Koité (pronounced KWA-tee) will play an all-ages concert and dance 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31, at Centennial Hall.

Koité and his band Bamada strum out a warm hybrid of traditional Malian riffs, Caribbean beats and flamenco rhythms with a swinging touch of African-American soul and blues.

"He has all kinds of influences, Malian rhythms and Caribbean rhythms," Davis said. "When I saw him, we just had to dance."

Koité was born a griot, or a member of a distinct social caste of singer-storytellers in the African country of Mali. When he was young, he took up guitar, rather that the kora, a traditional Malian string instrument.

He went on to attend Mali's national music school where he studied classical music and graduated with honors. When Koité's teacher died, he became the director of the school's orchestra. Around the same time he began listening to western musicians such as Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. Soon he was trying to imitate the Western sound at local clubs.

Koité formed Bamada (which means "the mouth of the crocodile" in local dialect) in 1988 with some of his childhood friends. After winning first place at the Voxpole Festival in France, Koité used his winnings to record the single "Cigarette A Bana" ("The Cigarette is Finished"), which became a hit on Malian radio. After "Cigarette A Bana," Koité began combining the sounds of Mali with western music, and over the past two decades he has earned a sizable international following.

In recent years, Koité's grin has graced the pages of The New York Times, People Magazine, The Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone.

Koité sometimes tunes his guitar to a pentatonic scale, instead of the eight-note scale, and he plays on open strings, like a player of the traditional instrument kamale n'goni. Other times his sound is more flamenco or Cuban; still other times his music references Hendricks-style rock or the gritty blues of Muddy Waters. In recent years he has played with Raitt, Joan Baez and Jackson Browne.

"He come from really pretty humble origins. His father had four wives and he had 17 siblings, but (despite his international fame) he goes back to his place where he grew up," Davis said. "I think that is remarkable and I respect that a lot."

Koité often tells reporters that his multi-cultural music is his effort to promote cross-cultural understanding, especially in Mali, where there is tension between ethnic groups that occasionally erupts into bloodshed. Koité and Bamada band members come from many ethnic groups, and in every song Koité sings a few words in the language of the country the music is influenced by, as a sign of respect, he told The New York Times in a 2000 interview.

Koité put out his first album, "Muso Ko," in 1994 and a second album, "Ya Ma," in 1998. Koité's third album recorded on the popular world music label Putumayo was a crossover disc of blues standards called "Mali to Memphis," which came out 1999. His most recent album, "Baro," also on Putumayo, has a more traditional, Afro-Cuban sound. In a recent review of "Baro," the Los Angeles Times called Koité "an emerging music superstar."

Tickets are $15 for students and seniors, $20 for adults and $65 for families, available at Rainy Day Books, Hearthside Books, or at the door. Koité's CDs are available at Capital Records.

• Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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