Mali guitar hero Habib Koité had been warned by his manager that things were going south in the record industry. But it wasn’t until he tried to buy the latest Justin Bieber album for his daughter in New York a few years ago — only to discover the Times Square Virgin Megastore shuttered — that Koité realized exactly how bad things had gotten. He resolved on the spot to figure out a more efficient, less-expensive way to record his music.
Koité’s solution was to record his latest album, Soô, in his small home studio in Bamako, Mali’s capitol. “I recorded at home because my producers say CD sales are too low,” the dreadlocked musician explains between sound check and dinner at Manhattan’s City Winery, just one stop on an intense six-week tour. Koité cut corners the best way he knew how. “Before, I paid to fly in a sound engineer from Europe, who stayed in a hotel in Bamako. Then, we’d move to Belgium to record again in another studio.” This time, though, a local engineer, assisted by Habib’s son, manned the boards, with Koité adding vocals and mixing Soô — the Bambara word for home — in Belgium.
Born into a four-wife, 18-child Khossanké family in northwest Mali in 1958, Koité is a jeli, or griot. He’s versed in the musical traditions of the Khossanké, Mande and Bambara tribal group, and has spent his life preserving and furthering them. To be a griot is to be a populist, and the Koité’s music is warm and approachable, much like the man himself. There’s a cozy chamber quality to Soô‘s songs, the lyrics of which encourage mutual assistance (“Dêmê”), criticize forced marriage (“Need You”), and celebrate both neighborhood football games (“Balon Tan”) and Mali’s flag (“Drapeau”). Singing in four West African languages — and a little English — Koité would like his message to be heard all across the region. If Mali had an Aaron Copland, Habib Koité would probably be it.
With the exception of 2012′s Brothers in Bamako, a collaboration with blues guitarist Eric Bibb, Soô marks the classically-trained musician’s first album without Bamada, the group he formed in 1988, six years after he graduated from the Bamako National Institute of Arts. Bamada suffered a huge loss in 2012, when Kélétigui Diabaté, a giant of the marimba-like balafon, died at age 81. Koité’s new lineup, he hastens to clarify, is an addition to, rather than a replacement for, Bamada, and shares bassist Abdoul Wahab Bethe. “I wanted to change a little,” Koité says. “I’m not sure if it’s a good change,” he adds with a chuckle, “but it gives me some new energy.”
Past and present, tradition and technology, accommodate one another easily in his new group. The balafon, two-stringed ngoni, Fula flute, harp-like kora and bolon, and other traditional West African instruments heard both on Soô and onstage, are played by keyboardist Charly Coulibaly with the help of Kontakt 5 sampling software. Rather than traps, Mama Kone plays a djembe drum and calabash percussion, while brother Issa Kone picks a banjo — an instrument some musicologists believe originated in West Africa before becoming an American staple. This particular banjo was a gift from the American blues singer Eric Bibb to Koité, whose instrumental style Bibb has described as “somewhere between a kora player and a flamenco guitarist.” Koité modified his own sound, too. On Soô he switched out the Godin nylon-stringed guitar he’s used since 1997 for a steel-stringed Fylde instrument.
For all that, Soô doesn’t exactly mark a radical departure from Koité’s previous albums, which have always represented a suave blend of old and new. If anything, the album emphasizes his knack for making traditional music sound both folksy and formal. You could compare him to American musicians like Darol Anger and Mike Marshall, who play a kind of upmarket folk music imbued with music-school facility. In addition to the immediacy of musicians creating music literally at home, a female chorus adds a domestic gravitas to many tracks. The album concludes with “Djadjiry,” a luminous guitar solo that pays homage to famed griotte Fanta Damba. A song about war and its horrors, it alludes more directly than anything else on Soô to the political and religious crises that have beset Mali during the past few years and manages to strike a note of optimism, as does Koité himself when discussing current events in Mali.
“You know, everything happened in Mali at the same time,” he says of the Islamist insurgency that led to a failed coup d’état and the resignation of Mali’s president in 2012. “Now everything is getting better because the government is democratic.”
Home may be the theme of Soô, but life on the road inspired its happiest song. “L.A.” memorializes the joy of drinking tequila and eating chicken wings in a Los Angeles restaurant willing to serve hungry musicians after hours. As Koité knocks back “one shot, two shots, three shots…” his lyrics compare California’s hills, houses and beaches favorably with those of Mali. But the mood turns darker one track later during “Khafole,” Koité’s stunning adaptation of a centuries-old Khossanké women’s song mourning the loss of a child to a premature circumcision. Koité heard it as a child, relearned it from an older specialist in Khossanké music, adapted it for guitar, and added it to his repertory as a cautionary tale about ignoring ancient wisdom.
I’d heard that Koité had passed along some contemporary wisdom in Santa Cruz, California, so I asked about his rumored preference for budget hotels. “Sometimes we have a night off on the road after driving all day,” Koité says. “We get to the hotel and have to find something to eat. We check for the closest Walmart and go there to buy chicken. We don’t buy other kinds of food. We buy cooked chicken, heat it up in the microwave, eat, and watch TV in peace. The big Marriott and Hilton hotels are beautiful, but there’s no microwave in the room, check-in takes too much time, and there’s no free Wi-Fi. Super 8, though: free Wi-Fi and a microwave.”
Be it ever so humble indeed.