This article originally appeared in: Acoustic Guitar Magazine, February 2002

You might have heard the buzz on Habib Koité.  Like how he’s Mali’s answer to Clapton.  The truth is, Habib Koité is a subtle and complex performer, neither flashy nor loud, who is bringing acoustic guitar and African musical traditions together in brand new ways.

Raised in a west-Malian griot family, Koité came to the capital, Bamako, where centralized television broadcast the music of dozens of diverse ethnic groups out to scattered villages across a country twice the size of France.  It was here that he became known for both his singular pan-Malian embrace of many different traditions and his determination to take Malian traditional musical styles beyond their geographic limits—to help unite the country through its music.

Combining the skills of singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Koité, with his band Bamada, has been gaining popularity everywhere he’s toured, first in Africa, then in Europe, where his ‘Wassiye’ spiked a hit on pop radio, and now in America, as his third album, ‘Baro,’ was released this summer by Putumayo.

Unlike much of African finger-picking, using only thumb and index finger, Habib Koité has developed a singular technique using all five fingers, sometimes sounding like he’s doing three things at once on his nylon-strung acoustic-electric guitar. “The picking style gives me the color of the music,” he explains.  “It’s this style that makes people think that there’s a kora or ngoni playing.  It gives me the possibility to do a little accompaniment while at the same time playing a little melody and at the same time the thumb plays the bass.”

Koité occasionally alters tuning, though he mostly sticks with standard EADGBE.  He will tune the high E up to an F#, as on ‘Fatma’ [from his first album], while on ‘Woulaba’ and ‘Baro’ on the new CD he tunes the top two strings to C and F#.

Koité and his band have been touring together for over a decade.  With the addition of balafon master Kélétigui Diabate, the musicians feel increasingly free to experiment in arrangements that can expand dramatically from the studio recordings.  “It’s not a rigorous structure we play in,” says Koité.  “There’s room for improvisation. We’re so used to each other we can just stretch the piece in every direction.”

In concert, this freedom and easy risk-taking have helped to secure Koité’s Clapton-buzz reputation while stars like Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne have made pilgrimages to Africa to play with him.

Traditional modes are central to each Malian tradition’s identity.  Koité translates these melodies onto the guitar with extreme care not to disturb their traditional essence.  “When I play music from other ethnic groups I greatly respect the mode.  So when the band plays together, no one plays a note foreign to the five notes of the scale.  It’s very important for the tonal color to stay strong.”  But he admits he is breaking important new ground, simply by playing chords.  “This is not part of Malian tradition.  I’m bringing chords to the tradition.”

Koité’s chord patterns are simple, yet emotionally rich.  “In pentatonic music,” he explains, “you must respect the five notes or you totally change the color panorama, ethnically and melodically.  If you listen to ‘Wari,’ for instance, it sounds western initially with the chords but it still respects the traditional scale, down to the little details.” 

‘Wari’ is a perfect example of Koité’s songwriting skill.  It starts catchy, happy, and appealing, yet it blossoms into aching emotion that one feels even if one can’t understand the lyrics that cry, ‘My son, know that you will suffer—the only remedy for suffering is a moment of happiness.’

Koité’s status as musical ambassador within Mali is understood by his Malian audiences.  But when asked what Westerners should make of the ways he works with and honors all the disparate Malian traditions, Koité shrugs, “I don’t really know how to answer.  It’s true, if you don’t know the traditional music of Mali, how can you know that I’m not mixing it up?  You’ll have to trust me. If you listen to each track on ‘Baro,’ you’ll be taken on an extraordinary journey across Mali.  Each piece takes you into a different sensibility, a different space, but they all come from the same country.”

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What They Play

Habib Koité owns two Godin Multiacelectro-acoustic nylon-strung guitars. His main instrument has been a Multiac Nylon Duet, but he recently also acquired a Grand Concert Duet.  Both guitars are equipped with custom L.R. Baggs electronics, an under-saddle transducer, and an internal condenser microphone. Koité performed and recorded with the first Godin for several years and is now playing the new one. His steel-string is a Takamine NP-18C acoustic-electric.