Perhaps the most immediate and obvious question that surfaces when Habib Koite performs on American stages is one of language. How can one of today’s top selling world music artists communicate when he sings almost exclusively in Bambara, the principal language of his Malian homeland, and French?
For Koite (pronounced kwa-tee), who performs a free convocation concert Thursday at Berea College, such seeming obstacles are almost second nature. Once his current United States tour concludes this weekend, the singer, guitarist and bandleader will head overseas for spring performances in Switzerland, Germany, Zimbabwe, The Netherlands, Belgium, Algeria and Poland.
Performing in so many countries in such rapid succession with rhythms that mix African tradition and melodic innovation means the world can’t help but become a smaller, more conversational place.
“The question I sometimes ask myself is, ‘Why do people continue to come to hear me?’ Koite said. “But it’s great. It’s great. I’ve discovered people always want to meet other cultures. Some people come for the melodies. Some come for the rhythms, to feel the soul of this culture. They come to travel through the music.”
A native of Senegal, Koite grew up in Mali versed in the musical tradition of the storytelling, nomadic griots. While Koite’s music reveals strong griot influences, it is more a product of the various cultures in and around Mali. Dubbed “pan-Malian” by some writers, the lightness of percussive and melodic colors also suggest flamenco and Afro-Cuban music.
The flamenco references are especially prominent in the way Koite plays guitar. He uses open tunings that simulate the kamale n’goni, a small, four stringed instrument favored as much by hunters as musicians in Mali. Koite’s singing echoes the string’s understated but pronounced lyrical drive.
Such inspirations abound on Koite’s most recent recording, a 2007 Cumbancha release titled Afriki (the Bambara translation for Africa).
“I was born in Senegal, but I heard many kinds of ethnic music in Mali,” Koite said. “I was very curious growing up to meet the music of my country. Much of it was in different ethnic languages. So when I started to play Malian music, it wasn’t too easy for me. But I had a good ear. I listened very well.
“But if I wanted to take the music from these spots, I needed to learn some of their language. I wanted the respect of those speaking that language. I wanted the people of these spots to be proud of the music I do. With some of the (traditional) songs, translating the lyrics was not easy. But it is the job I do. I don’t do it for one person. I do it for many people who come to hear me.”
In and out of Mali, Koite has picked up important musical allies. He received his introduction to major musical festivals by playing alongside the acclaimed Malian kora master Toumani Diabate in the early ‘90s. Later in the decade, he was featured on a tour assembled by the world music record label Putumayo dubbed Acoustic Africa that also featured South African vocal star and activist Vusi Mahlasela. But Koite has also been championed by such American music celebrities as Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.
“I don’t sing in English, but I’m all the time invited by countries where it is spoken to play there,” Koite said. “I find the spirit of these people to be very open.
“When I open my eyes, I see my world. The people all come from different countries, but they stay together and learn many things from each other. They are always open to meeting others who don’t come from their own culture.
“That’s the common point in the world I see – the people who come to meet people.”
Habib Koite and Bamada performs at 8 tonight at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College. Admission is free. Call (859) 985-3000.