Habib Koite will be leading the way for a host of local and internationally acclaimed artistes when the KigaliUp music festival kicks off today at Amahoro National Stadium. We all know that he is a world musician and that he plays his guitar on open strings, but what else do you know about the man that is here to headline the two-day KigaliUpFestival?
Habib Koité was born in 1958 in Thiès, a Senegalese town situated along a railway line which his father helped construct. He comes from the noble line of Khassonké griots, who traditionally provided wit, wisdom and musical entertainment at social gatherings and special events.
Koite grew up surrounded by 17 brothers and sisters, and developed his unique guitar style accompanying his griot mother. He inherited his passion for music from his paternal grandfather who played the kamele n’goni, a traditional four-stringed instrument associated with hunters from the Wassolou region of Mali.
But nobody really taught him how to sing or to play an instrument. He just watched his parents and relatives while at it, and it just washed off on him.
Initially bound for a career as an engineer, Koite soon found himself pursuing music at Mali’s National Institute of Arts (INA), after his uncle insisted music was his true calling.
Indeed, while at INA, Koite soon proved his uncle right and in a big way. Just six months after he had enrolled, he was made conductor of INA Star, the school’s prestigious band. He studied music for four years, graduating at the top of his class in 1982.
So impressed was the school with his talent, it immediately hired him as a guitar teacher.
One of the things unique about Koite is his approach to the guitar, which he tunes to the pentatonic scale and plays on open strings just as he does with his native kamale n’goni instrument.
His singing style is markedly restrained and intimate, with varying cadenced rhythms and melodies.
The music of Mali is rich and diverse, with many regional variations and styles that are particular to the respective local cultures. Koite is unique because he brings together different styles, creating a new pan-Malian approach that reflects his open-minded interest in all types of music. The predominant style played by Habib is based on the danssa, a popular rhythm from his native city of Keyes. He calls his version danssa doso, a term he coined that combines the name of the popular rhythm with the word for hunter’s music (doso), one of Mali’s most powerful and ancient musical traditions.
“I put these two words together to symbolise the music of all ethnic groups in Mali. I’m curious about all the music in the world, but I make music from Mali. Usually, Malian musicians play only their own ethnic music, but me, I go everywhere. My job is to take all these traditions and to make something with them, to use them in my music,” he has been quoted as saying before.
In 1988, Habib formed his own group, Bamada (a local nickname that roughly translates to “in the mouth of the crocodile”, with a few young childhood friends.
In January 1995, Habib met his current manager, Belgian Michel De Bock. Working together, they recorded his first album, Muso Ko. Upon its release the album quickly reached #2 in the European World Music Charts. From that point forward, Habib became a permanent fixture on the European Music Festival circuit and began to spread his musical influences around the world. He has played at most of Europe’s major venues and festivals, including the Montreux Jazz Festival, WOMAD, and the World Roots Festival.
The second album, Ma Ya, was released in Europe in 1998 to widespread acclaim. Compared to the first release, Ma Ya was a more subtle production which revealed a more acoustic, introspective side of his music.
But the powerful personality and artistry aside, one of the keys to Habib’s success has been his dedication to touring, and in that regard he has been christened a “true road warrior”. With his band, Bamada, he has performed over 1000 gigs since 1994 and appeared on some of the world’s most prestigious concert stages.
After a six-year absence from the recording studio, Koite and his Bamada band returned with a new album, Afriki, a collection of songs that reflect the diverse styles of Malian music.
Recorded in Mali, Belgium and Vermont, Afriki finds Habib exploring new musical directions. Afriki is nothing but a celebration of the strengths and challenges of life for the millions on the African continent.
But it also brings to the fore Koite’s philosophical side: “People here in Africa are willing to risk death trying to leave for Europe or the USA, but they are not willing to take that risk staying to develop something here in Africa,” says Habib. “Life can be really good or really bad wherever you live. People need to understand that. Even though Mali is poor, we still have good quality of life: You can walk outside and smile and someone will smile back. I have thought about it a lot, and I am not sure if poor countries have a worse quality of life.”