Habib Koité balances the traditional and the new

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Musical ambassador is a term that’s loosely used, but with Mali’s Habib Koité it’s entirely apt. Not only has the guitarist and singer received the highest award available to an artist in his homeland—Chevalier du Mérit National—he’s toured extensively throughout Europe and North America for more than two decades, and most significantly, he writes and sings in several of the many languages of Mali as well as in French and English.

Koité draws on a range of traditional rhythms for his original electroacoustic music and—unlike most Malian performers—doesn’t confine himself to the styles of his own ethnic group. He’s a griot, a member of a hereditary caste of storytellers, praise-singers, and musicians, of a very contemporary kind. He grew up among traditional players in the Kassongé region, as well as in the increasingly cosmopolitan capital, Bamako, where he absorbed many other influences.

“I went to the National Institute of the Arts, where I learned classical guitar from a teacher who’d attended music schools in Cuba,” says Koité, reached in Brussels, and speaking in French. “Of course, in the city we were also exposed to western pop and rock. I was always very interested in traditional music but I never had time to learn the instruments—so what I’ve done is to imitate their sound on my guitar, tuning to the pentatonic scales found in much Malian music, and using open strings in the manner of the kora and kamale ngoni [gourd harps].”

Koité takes a meticulous approach to adapting and arranging the music for instruments from outside of Mali. “Every rhythmic detail is transposed. For example, to imitate Takamba rhythms played on the calabash you have to listen very, very carefully. There are sharp sounds, deep sounds, and clacking sounds,” says Koité, illustrating with his voice.

“They have to be rendered as exactly as possible to maintain the distinc­tive groove. I want Takamba villagers to be able to recognize instantly their native rhythms, and at the same time I want westernized young people from the cities to be able to enjoy the music. In such ways I’m always trying to find a balance between the traditional and the new.”

Koité has long worked with his group Bamada—which still exists—but to record his latest release, Soô, he created a second and as yet unnamed quintet, the outfit coming to Vancouver. Its instrumentation features guitar, keyboards, bass, and banjo along with the kamale ngoni, and the percussion of calabash and djembe rather than the kit drum used by Bamada.

“For the past few years I’ve been working on parallel projects with other artists—like the Brothers in Bamako album I made with [acoustic bluesman] Eric Bibb in 2012. Now I have a new album that’s my own, with a new group and a fresh sound. Soô means ‘at home’—a dwelling, a community, or a country—because it was all recorded in my house in Bamako, but the word is also symbolic of the heart, and the centre of your life.”

Habib Koité performs at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver on Friday (February 7).

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