[2 October 2007]
Habib Koité was born in Senegal, but his family is part of a Malian griot tradition stretching back for centuries. His grandfather played the four-stringed n’goni, and young Habib used to accompany his mother, who was also a griot, on it. But he evolved his own unique technique on the guitar when he was still a teenager, and quickly came to prominence in his country with music that incorporated many different Malian styles, as well as American blues and folk music and Spanish and South American guitar techniques. Songs such as “Cigarette A Bana” and “Nanalé” have made him a huge star in West Africa, and albums like Ma Ya and Baro have turned him into one of the central figures of world music.
But anyone expecting his music to conform to any “African” stereotypes will be sorely disappointed. There are no nativist drum freakouts here, no 20-minute Afrobeat epics, and nothing even remotely resembling township jive. Malian music is often quite gentle, crystalline even. This has to do with instruments like the n’goni, the 20-stringed harp-like kora, and the wooden zylophone called the balafón, but it also has to do with the traditional story-telling function of the griot class.
So it should really come as no surprise that Afriki is one of the most beautiful and intricately layered acoustic records of the year. Opener “Namania” is subdued and introspective, but that is to be expected. The lost rural girl in the song actually stands for the loss of Mali’s natural resources, and that’s a heavy weight to hang on a song. “Titati” and “Fimani” could easily be confused for Bill Frisell pieces. And “N’Teri” adds strings, harmonicas, and a massive choir for a song in which Koité thanks everyone who has ever helped him in his music career.
Make no mistake, though; Koité also knows how to get the party moving. “Massaké” rides a world-class six-beat groove, proving that good old-fashioned call-and-response can be utilized in a lot of different ways. On “Africa”, Pee Wee Ellis arranges one hell of a horn chart to under gird Koité‘s call for continental unity. “Barra” contains more swing and complexity than most artists’ whole careers. There’s a whole spectrum of stylistic mastery here, as long as you don’t mind a bit of schizophrenia.
This record has grown on me every time I’ve heard it, so I’m not sure about my rating. It won’t go down by year’s end, but it might go up. Considering we’re starting with an 8 here, we might be looking at another candidate for album of the year.