Habib Koité Balances the Traditional and the new

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Wednesday February 05, 2014


Habib Koité Balances the Traditional and the new
By: Tony Montague

Musical ambassador is a term that’s loosely used, but with Mali’s Habib Koité it’s entirely apt. Not only has the guitarist and singer received the highest award available to an artist in his homeland’“Chevalier du Mérit National’“he’s toured extensively throughout Europe and North America for more than two decades, and most significantly, he writes and sings in several of the many languages of Mali as well as in French and English.

Koité draws on a range of traditional rhythms for his original electroacoustic music and’“unlike most Malian performers’“doesn’t confine himself to the styles of his own ethnic group. He’s a griot, a member of a hereditary caste of storytellers, praise-singers, and musicians, of a very contemporary kind. He grew up among traditional players in the Kassongé region, as well as in the increasingly cosmopolitan capital, Bamako, where he absorbed many other influences.

‘I went to the National Institute of the Arts, where I learned classical guitar from a teacher who’d attended music schools in Cuba,’ says Koité, reached in Brussels, and speaking in French. ‘Of course, in the city we were also exposed to western pop and rock. I was always very interested in traditional music but I never had time to learn the instruments’“so what I’ve done is to imitate their sound on my guitar, tuning to the pentatonic scales found in much Malian music, and using open strings in the manner of the kora and kamale ngoni [gourd harps].’

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