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Mali Mythmaker

Habib Koité taps into his nation's rich musical folklore

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Like a hot sirocco wind from the Sahara, Habib Koité (pronounced Kwa-tay) and his band, Bamada, approach Charlotte like visitors from another planet. In truth, they are from the West African republic of Mali, and their music is actually as refreshing and engaging as a cool breeze. It is Charlotte's good fortune to have a band of this magnitude and quality performing here, so far from home.

I spoke with Habib by phone between stops on his North American tour. "I'm in a bus now, I don't know where I am," was his first response. The bad phone connection and his fractured English made for a brief interview. But his music, though Malian to the core, has an international appeal that cuts across borders, stereotypes and differences.

"I'm in a bus now," he told me. "I'm between Los Angeles and San Francisco. We are driving three hours now from Los Angeles. It's my favorite state in the US." Asked why, he replied, "We have a lot of fans in California. And the weather is good."

Some may know about the transcendental music of Mali via Ry Cooder's recording with Ali Farka Toure on Talking Timbuktu. Many consider Mali the birthplace of American blues, and that particular recording offers some persuasive links. The one-chord blues, cross rhythms, call-and-response, and lengthy song duration can all sound eerily like melancholy versions of John Lee Hooker's one-chord riffs and boogies. But Habib's music, with his own Mali chords and tunings, sounds more African than American; you'd be hard-pressed to find the direct blues connection. Restrained, sinewy and elegant, his music is unique, and resplendent in its down-home African sensibilities. But it also surprisingly adapts some unique Spanish influences. Habib studied flamenco with a veteran of an Afro-Cuban band, Maravillas du Mali. His hit single, "Cigarette Abana" ("The Cigarette is Finished"), illustrates some of the Iberian stylings.

The name of Habib's band, Bamada, is a local Bambara word that translates as "mouth of the crocodile." "OK, we (Bamada) are the mouth of the crocodile," he says of his band, formed back in 1988. The word is also a nickname for residents of Mali's capital city along the Niger River, Bamako, where the members lived while the band coalesced. Discussing his band he explained, "We are six onstage," later adding, "we're together a long time -- fifteen years."

First up in the band is legendary Malian musician Keletigui Diabate, from the musically renowned Diabate family. He's been around long enough to have been in Lionel Hampton's band in the 60s, and is now considered King of the Balafon, a West African wooden-key xylophone. It has a very tropical, Lounge and Exotica sound, but he cuts loose on the Cuban-influenced tune, "Batoumanbe." He also plays violin, which at times lends the band an otherworldly charm.

Abdoul Wahab Berthe plays bass, kamala n'goni and sings. That instrument you never heard of -- kamala n'goni -- is the local, traditional four-string, always tuned to open keys. Souleymane Ann is on drums, calebasse and vocals; calabasse meaning calabash, or gourd-like percussion. Mahamadou Kone is just listed as a percussionist, but in an African band percussion usually means much more. In his case, he is a master of the talking drum, called tama. Also appearing is Boubacar Sidibe on guitar, harmonica and vocals. His harmonica offers the band a more grounded, Western influence. Finally, bandleader Habib sings lead and plays guitar, though he adds, "a little percussion and regular flute," as well.

Habib is grounded in the Malian griot tradition -- roughly translated as African musical "storyteller." His mother was a griot, while his grandfather played the kamala n'goni, the traditional four-stringer, often associated with Malian hunting music. The griots are historically significant in a land of low literacy and little media. In a previous interview Habib explained, "The Malian musician play generally the music of his village." Since Habib's music represents "all of Mali," he explains, "I was the first who played the music for each part. I have a great job because we have a lot of music in Mali." Habib brings these diverse influences into one pan-Mali mixture known as danssa, a popular rhythm from his native city of Keyes in western Mali, near Senegal. He calls his own unique amalgam danssa doso, a Bambara phrase combining the rhythm with a Bambara word for hunter's music, doso, the backbone of traditional Malian music.

As a precocious young musician he enrolled in the national Institute of Arts in Bamako, Mali. He studied there for four years, graduating at the top of his class in 1982, which makes him 50 years old. He can be coy about his age as he recently claimed it was "around 40 -- it can be up or down."

His double CD, Foly! Live Around the World, is a thank you to his fans, some of whom asked him to release a more improvisational recording of his best songs in a live setting. Here's how he explains it: "Some songs on CD in studio have four minutes or five. But on this CD, the same song have ten minutes."

In Bambara, "foly" means "play," and Habib obliges while offering his listeners a massive 2 1/2 hours of rhythm and rumba with varied instrumentation and trancelike grooves, sending them into semi-delirious swoons with each cut. Varying textures and rhythms, along with skittering, sensual guitars, give the music a passionate, heartfelt sound and a cosmopolitan stance. Centuries of Malian musical traditions provide ample substance while at the same time much of the music is restrained, airy, intimate and elegant. Habib blends together an array of influences from his own country along with some Western tastes, creating a mix of Mali-based, Euro-inflected, Mali to Memphis, Pan-African funk. Mesmerizing is the final result.

Habib Koité and Bamada appear at the Neighborhood Theatre on Sunday, February 29, at 8pm. Tickets are $20. For info, call 704-358-9298. Joh Camara opens.

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