Habib Koite & Bamada
Douglas Heselgrave's #6 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2007, Volume 14, #12
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed December 12, 2007, 06:45 AM CST
Not only has Jerry Garcia been dead for more than a decade, and but it also has been 40 years since Jimi Hendrix savaged his guitar and left his mark at the Monterey International Pop Festival. Once a premier player, Eric Clapton long ago settled into relying on laid-back grooves rather than blistering solos to propel his work, and the result is that his music has become rather genteel. In recent times, several names have been put forward as guitar fanatics look for their next savior: Ben Harper, John Mayer, and Warren Haynes, among them. Despite the excellence of these and many other guitarists, there doesn’t appear to be a lot that’s new and different on the six-string horizon. Riffs, melodies, and leads are recycled ad nauseam with increasingly diminished returns, and at least a few fans are growing restless as they wait for someone to come along and create a new paradigm for the instrument.
Given the current state of the recording industry, it might not be a bad idea for music aficionados to try looking outside the traditional rock music spectrum for innovative approaches to playing the guitar. There are sound reasons for asserting this. As the genre falls further into regurgitated clichés, musicians from all over the African diaspora are discovering and expressing fresh, melodic possibilities on the instrument. With their recent releases, artists, such as Cape Verde’s Tcheka and Belize’s Andy Palacio, have started a fire that promises to burn the corpulent asses off any number of hoary, old rock guitarists. They — along with other African string players like Salif Keita, Dobet Gnahore, and Vieux Farka Toure — are threatening to upend preconceptions of just what a guitar should do and how it should sound. Traditional melodies, phrases, and expectations of what a lead guitarist should express are being subverted as they are reinterpreted by contemporary African musicians in bold and exciting new ways. By drawing upon their own rich, cultural heritage to interpolate ancient sounds into a modern context, these musicians, more than any other person since Jimi Hendrix, have shredded rock’s tired formulas and expanded the possibilities of the guitar’s compositional framework. Of these African guitarists, none is braver or more melodically challenging than Habib Koite.
For an artist who is not a household name in the West, Koite has many influential friends in the upper echelons of the music business. Called "Mali’s biggest pop star" by Rolling Stone — in an article in which Bonnie Raitt compared him to Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan — Koite has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, where he and Raitt recreated their duet from her 2001 effort Silver Lining. He also has been featured in the pages of People Magazine and Entertainment Weekly. While most African artists are lucky to sell 10,000 copies of their albums, Koite has sold more than 250,000 discs worldwide. Afriki, the newest outing from Koite and his band Bamada, is his first endeavor in more than six years. It also was well worth the wait.
Koite is a guitarist who plays with a level of feeling and instinct that is second to none. His fluid approach as well as his rubbery glide over the fretboard allows him to express himself rhythmically in a way that sounds effortless. Over the years, Koite has achieved a delicate musical balance by successfully integrating rock styles into his Malian songs, without ever diluting or compromising their power. Often playing melody lines and leads simultaneously, Koite recreates the traditional sounds of the kora on his guitar. Yet, he achieves something that goes far beyond mere transcription. His lines and phrases are tight and complex, and they never lose the warmth and flexibility that one expects from African music. On song after song, Koite reaches deep into the well of his inspiration in order to communicate an impossibly rich and textured musical world that is full of nuance and unique expression.
Too frequently, the ‘world music’ label frightens away listeners who fear something strange, exotic, and unapproachable. It would be unfortunate if this prevented people from experiencing Koite’s wonderful guitar playing and singing. Although Afriki sounds nothing like an average rock record, the songs it contains offer a lot to those open-minded music lovers who have grown tired of waiting for the next big thing to come out of America or Europe.
Like all releases on the Cumbancha label, Afriki is an audiophile’s delight. Flawlessly recorded, it is one of the best-sounding albums of the year. The instrumental separation and attention to detail in the studio combine in a way that allows listeners to hear the music as it was meant to be experienced. This is accentuated by the fact that Koite is a visionary artist and a perfectionist who obviously goes to great lengths to make sure that each song sounds exactly as he imagined it. The challenging compositions and their accompanying arrangements, which are full of polyrhythms and creative counterpoints, provide evidence of the care that Koite takes in communicating his ideas. The balance between traditional African instruments — such as the balafon (a wooden Xylophone) and the n’goni (a Malian lute) — and western instruments — like the horn and guitar — is delicately maintained throughout the disc’s 11 selections. The resulting mix reveals a truly new musical form that is simultaneously ancient and modern. When Koite’s powerful and evocative vocals are added to the formidable and otherworldly tracks, the result is a groundbreaking, classic effort.
Afriki is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box