With this introduction, we are launched into the world of Malian superstar Habib Koité‘s sound of balafon, percussion, bass, violin, and guitars. Then, of course, there is his velvety smooth, almost understated, but nonetheless exceptional vocals. (The legend is that Bonnie Raitt once said of Koité’s guitar playing, “I would drink his sweat”.).
Habib Koité’s lineage is that of Khassonké griots from Mali. Griots in Africa are equivalent to the bards of Ireland. They are not only musicians and storytellers but are keepers of the oral traditions and history of their people. He learned to play guitar by watching his parents and by accompanying his griot mother. Although Koité had planned to study engineering, with the encouragement of an uncle who recognized his talent, he instead studied guitar at the National Institute of Arts in Bamako, Mali. He became so accomplished at playing guitar that when he graduated from music school they asked him to be an instructor. Together with his childhood friends from Bamako, he formed the band Bamada. The band name “Bamada” is taken from a nickname for residents of the capital and is translated as “the mouth of the crocodile”.
One aspect of Bamada’s music is that Koité does not just play the music of one region or style but instead incorporates the many different styles and rhythms of Mali. Although he adds modern aspects and certainly borrows from outside influences such as Cuban music, he likes to keep his music solidly based within Malian traditions. Koité models his guitar playing after the traditional Malian kamala n’goni, a hunter’s instrument. This blending of modern and traditional with a sort of pan-Malian approach gives Bamada’s sound a unique and dynamic range. The band literally explodes on stage with energy and creativity and, of course, the audience reacts positively. This is what makes a live recording of their work absolutely essential.
Even though Fôly! Live Around the World doesn’t contain anything that hasn’t been recorded on his previous three CDs, Muso KO, Ma Ya, and Baro, the songs are new versions, often extended and performed with all the warmth and excitement that is characteristic of Habib Koité’s and Bamada’s concerts. This recording isn’t just one performance, but is a compilation of tracks taken from concerts that Bamako recorded around the world — hence the title. During the introductions to each piece, you hear Koité speak in several languages from German to French to English, and of course, he sings in his own very lyrical Mandingue language.
Fôly! Live Around the World opens with the title track to Koité’s first CD, Muso Ko, with this live version emphasizing Bamada’s virtuoso musicianship, especially Kélétigui Diabaté, grand master of the Malian balafon. “Muso Ko” easily slips into “Fatma”, another tune from Koité’s first CD. Koité keeps the smooth pace going — never frantically fast but always lilting and very danceable. I have seen this band perform at least twice and my experience has been that the audience does not remain in their seats. Almost everyone is up and dancing by the second or third song. The audiences on this CD are obviously not any different, for during a little musical interlude in “Bitile”, Koité choreographs and teaches them to dance with him.
By “Ma Ya”, the title track from Koité’s second CD, everyone is warmed up and ready to go. On this, Kélétigui Diabaté proves that he is not only the master of the balafon, but a fabulous violin player with his solo. Of course, all the musicians in Bamada are more than worthy of respect. Koité has put together one of the finest groups in Mali; which one would expect of a man of his great talents.
No live recording would be complete without Koité’s biggest “hit” and almost signature piece, “Cigarette Abana”, which he introduces after a little scat singing with a “thank you for not smoking in this area!” The tune has the chorus “No more cigarette. No more cigarette. Abana. Abana.”
It is on disc #2 in this compilation where Bamada’s talking drummer, Mahamadou Koné, really shines with his solos and as a back up. In concert, he is an absolute dynamo and one can easily hear that in his playing on this particular recording. The interplay between Koité’s guitar and Koné’s talking drum is superb. In reality, though, Koité and all his musicians in Bamada have an enormous rapport and play together seemingly as one mind and ten hands.
The album is beautifully recorded and the sound quality superb. With such smooth segues from one song to the next, one would not know that this wasn’t just one sublime evening at an acoustically perfect concert hall. All great concerts come to an end sometime, of course, and Fôly! Live Around the World glides to a finish with “Takamba” and a merci from Koité.