Early into his two-set performance last night at Berea College’s Phelps-Stokes Auditorium, the celebrated Malian singer/guitarist Habib Koite confessed the word “Berea” in his native Bambara language translated into “a piece of wood.”
Not exactly the icebreaker of the year. But while his remarks may have only elicited a few chuckles from the curious audience, the light but heavily atmospheric rhythms Koite created were immediately inviting. Within the performance’s opening minutes, a pack of students at the stage right corner of the auditorium were dancing with the sort of abandon one might witness at a Dave Matthews Band concert. But the communion went much further than that.
After strolling into the audience to offer an up-close glimpse of acoustic guitarwork that matched lyrical West African accents with almost jazz-like phrasing, Koite met up with a half-dozen or so children dancing near the students. The singer then fell to his knees so as to meet his very young audience at eye level. The exchanges were priceless. From the children came merry hesitancy and then blissful acceptance, as though they had been given official permission to dance like living cartoons. From Koite, the electric smile he flashed as he played to his newly won fans told the whole story.
For everyone else, the music Koite and his five member Bamada band summoned was immensely accessible. The rhythms were led by Koite’s guitarwork, but augmented by the marimba-like balafon and, during the second set, violin (both played with understated authority by Keletigui Diabate) along accents of talking drums and tama (from Mahammadou Kone).
That the resulting sound was so audience friendly was something of a surprise. Often ethnic music is heavily Western-ized or dolled up with pop confections to make it agreeable to an unsuspecting crowd. Admittedly, Koite’s songs are homogenous to a point. But the influences didn’t seem to go further north last night than Spain or further West than the Caribbean.
As a result, tunes like Africa and Fimani offered sunny but serious grooves that neatly underscored the chant-like punctuation of Koite’s singing. And, yes, by evening’s end, Koite even discovered a talking point that trumped Berea’s “wooden” translation – namely, his band’s accommodations at the recently reopened Boone Tavern.
“It sure is not like Motel 6,” Koite commented. And so it was that Mali and Berea were able to share some of their greatest cultural riches with each other.