By Conor Godfrey
This month Habib Koite and his group Bamada will be playing in venues across the U.S.—you must not miss them.
Before I rave about Habib’s music, we should talk about the Griot tradition he comes from.
When I first arrived in Guinea, I stayed with a Malinke family (an ethnic group prevalent in Northern Guinea, Southern Mali, and the Northern Ivory Coast).
As an adopted son of this family, I was given the name Mamadi Dioubate. Mamadi is simply the name Mohamed re-engineered to fit the phonetics of the Malinke language. The history of Dioubate however, is the history of the West African Griot.
The following story was first related to me by another Peace Corps volunteer baptized a Dioubate, and subsequently recounted numerous times by Guineans and Malians with both major and minor variations to the story.
Listen to some balafon music while you read the story…
‘Sundiata Keita was the founder and most celebrated king of the Malian Empire. He also possessed the most famous balafon in the whole of the empire.
His balafon was made of ebony from the Central Africa forest, ivory, teak, and all the best materials the empire could offer, and no one could touch the balafon but Sundiata.
One day as Sundiata and his retinue rode out from his compound they heard stunningly beautiful balafon music coming from the Emperor’s compound.
Two things were immediately apparent. First: the music was coming from the Sundiata’s personal balafon. Second: the doomed soul playing it was beyond a doubt the best player in the empire.
So Sundiata and his followers turned around and followed the music back to the compound where Sundiata planed to kill the upstart. The emperor left his retinue outside and entered the room with the balafone.
There he confronted a peasant playing the balafon with such skill and beauty that even he, the emperor, could not have hoped to compete. Eventually the music petered out as the player realized his time was up.
Just as Sundiata opened his mouth to condemn the man the player took up the balafon mallets and started praising the emperor in time with the music.
He sang about how just Sundiata was, and how generous. He sang about how healthy the empire was, and how well Sundiata guided his people.
After a few minutes of this effusive and articulate praise, Sundiata made up his mind. He would not kill this peasant.
Instead the man would become his official praiser, following him across the emperor to extoll Sundiata’s virtues to his subjects. And thus was born the Griot tradition….
According to my older Malinke brother, Dioubate is a modern corruption of this original Griot’s family name.
Today numerous “Griot” families claim this legend or one of its variations as their founding myth.
Whether Dioubates or Cissokkos or Sussos formed the original caste of Griots, the Griot tradition is alive and well across West Africa.
From Mali down to the Ivory Coast all the way up to Western Sahara, Griots act as the keepers of oral tradition, entertainment at weddings and baptisms, and current affairs pundits.
In my village on Thursday nights, people showed up at the local youth center in droves to dance the Marmayia to traditional music played by Griots. (Until the local elder banned them; village rumor mill said his wives were having too much fun at the dances)
Habib Koite and countless other West African singers keep this tradition alive.
He sings mostly in Bambara (a Malian national language), and to a lesser extent in French, though he experiments with other Malian dialects and sometimes will even switch into English.
Habib blends regional styles from across Mali as well as incorporating flamenco rhythms and guitar from the Afro-Cuban tradition.
He is the darling of American stars like Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, has been featured in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and he even made an appearance on David Letterman.
I saw Habib & Bamada in Bamako, Mali and it was one of the best live performances I have ever seen.
Most Americans listen to world music because it intrigues them; the music uses new sounds and might produce a new and interesting mood.
People play world music in the kitchen while doing something else, or in the background of a cocktail party to lend the apartment a certain exoticism.
Habib’s music goes well beyond the merely ‘different’, or ‘interesting’—it will blow you away. You will soon be reaching for his CD in your car and trying your best to sing along in Bambara.
Watch a Burkina Native make the Balafon talk.
A great example of Soulful Habib Koite: N’Terri