March 3, 2005
by BOB DORAN
WHEN I CALLED MALIAN GUITARIST HABIB KOITE [photo at left] ON HIS cellphone, he was rolling down the road on a tour bus traveling from North Carolina to Tennessee deep in America's South.
The tour that brings Koité and his band Bamada to Arcata for a show Saturday, March 5, also includes several dates where he is paired with American blues artists, demonstrating the link between traditional African music and the blues.
Koité explained that he often hears the sound of West Africa in American music, "I am a Malian musician, and a lot of Mandinka music is based on the pentatonic scale. There were a lot of people from West Africa deported to the Americas during the slave trade period, and these people mixed with other people over the years. At first they continued to play their own music, and it evolved with time to give the blues scale."
Koité writes his own songs, but the roots of his music run deep into the past. As he explained, his family name links him to the griots, court musicians who passed their skills and songs from one generation to the next.
"We are griot, even if we don't do music. It is a line of griot since the [time of the] Mandinka Empire. My father was a musician, but not to make money. He had another job, he worked on a train, but he played [music] all the time. My brother and I followed my grandfather and the father of my grandfather, they were musicians, griots. But the way I play guitar, it is not only about griot. I am griot but I play many kinds of music. I play music from Malian traditional instruments on guitar, play it like the kora.
"When I was growing up, my father and my older brother both played guitar, and I naturally followed, because it was there. After, when I started giving music lessons at the INA (Institut National des Arts) in Bamako, I was in charge of [the] classical guitar department. On top of teaching `occidental' classical guitar, I also had to teach traditional string instruments such as the kora or the kamale n'goni, in the Malian style, and therefore dabbled in adapting the guitar to emulate the sound of these instruments. The kora has 21 strings so, while I try to play close [to the kora sound], it's not the same, I cannot play exactly the same, it is not possible."
A key difference is the fact that the strings on the harp-like kora are plucked with both hands. "With two hands playing, you are free to do bass lines, rhythm and melody. It's not easy to do that on guitar, but I try sometimes."
While his music has evolved by absorbing western elements, he still feels a connection to the music played by his ancestors. "The role of the musician is to move people emotionally, and also to inform or to comment about different things in life. I am a griot by birth and by name and will always be. When you are a musician as well, you can't be more griot than that.
"Many things have changed since the days of griot, but one thing is the same. We play music to make a message, to say something to the people. That's does not change. I do the same. I try to say something with my music. The music always has a message."
What is the message? "The message is about peace, about compassion, about how people can stay together with tolerance. People can joke and smile and laugh together.
"I talk about the young generation from my country, what is happening to them, what they can try, what they want to do, what they dream. The TV in Africa gives them a lot of images from [around] the world and sometimes many of the young want to go out not knowing the reality of other countries like America and Europe.
"They see the movies and the videos for black American music, soul or rock music. It does not show the reality of life here. America is a beautiful country but you must work a lot to have money to live. It's not easy to do that, it's not like a paradise you see on TV."
While he has traveled worldwide playing his music, and he could live anywhere he wants to, Koité still spends most of his time in Mali. "I travel a lot but when I finish my tour I go home. I still live there because I love my country and I want to show an example for the young people that you can see the rest of the world, but still come back home. What they take with them if they go is our culture, the soul of the Malian people. They must have dreams, but it should not only be to leave Mali, it must include making a better life at home."
Habib Koité and Bamada perform Saturday, March 5, at 8 p.m. in HSU's Van Duzer Theatre. Tickets are $25, $20 for senior and children, $15 for HSU students. For more information, call CenterArts box office at 826-3928.
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