The modern griot
From the February, 2014 issue
In 1983 I saw King Sunny Ade and His African Beats at Soldier Field in Chicago--a whirlwind of melody, rhythm, and motion, watched and heard by tens of thousands of people. African music has never again reached that level of popularity in the United States, but over the last decade fresh sounds have been breaking out across the continent, and someone is going to accomplish it again. The Malian guitarist Habib Koite might be the one. On the strings of his guitar, ancient tones dance with sounds of the modern world.
Koite calls himself the Modern Griot. With his acoustic guitar standing in for the kora, the ancient twenty-one-stringed lute-harp of peoples across Mali and its neighboring countries, he plays instrumental pieces and spins tales in a variety of West African and sometimes European languages. The Ark has hosted some legendary performances of traditional Malian kora music, and Koite is in touch with that art of hypnotic cascading notes. But he is a musician of our time, not of the timeless tradition of kora music.
Sometimes he plays the guitar solo, but most often he appears with a highly energetic band that mixes traditional styles with modern ones--and modern styles with one another. In the past he's taken the stage with percussionists, a xylophonist, and a couple of electric guitarists who can reproduce a variety of West African rhythms and have brought him popularity in many African countries and across Europe. Koite's acoustic guitar, outfitted with heavy strings, cuts through even a big electric sound.
Malian musicians also have an uncanny ability to collaborate with musicians from other parts of the world, and Koite recently recorded an album with American-born blues guitarist Eric Bibb. In the wake of that, Koite has formed a new band that includes a banjo, an originally West African instrument probably related to the kora. The banjo has thus come full circle.
That band appears on Koite's new album, Soo (as yet unavailable in the U.S.), and some version of it should be with Koite when he appears at the Ark on February 18. The large and enthusiastic crowd that greeted Mali's highly contemporary and syncretic Amadou & Mariam at the Power Center last summer and totally got into what was happening makes me think that African music's day is coming again, and that Koite's show will be hitting at just the right time.
[Originally published in February, 2014.]
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