A voice from Mali

The humble and renowned musician Habib Koité is at the center of Malian musical culture. Born and raised in Senegal and currently based in Mali, Koité is among the league of West African singers who are captivating many hearts these days. With his songs such as “I Ka Bara” (Your work) and “Din Din Wo” (Little Child), Koité’s music looks to be transcending languages and cultures. He started music at an early age inspired by his musical parents. After his graduation from the National Institute of Arts in 1982, he founded band name “Bamada” named after a nickname for the Malian capital city Bamako. The band members were all his childhood friends. It did not take him long to get acceptance with his relaxed and soothing voice. The song “Nanale” won him the Radio France International Discoveries prize. His music success reached its peak when “Muso Ko” became number three in the European World Music charts for many weeks. After that his album “Ma Ya” was redistributed through the Putumayo world music label. So far, the artist has eight albums. His latest, “Soô” will be released next month. This album is dedicated to peace and understanding in Mali after a bloody conflict that took place in 2012.  Two weeks ago, Koité was in Addis Ababa to perform as part of the yearly Selam Festival event which is held on January 17 and 18 at Tropical Garden. Playing his guitar, Habib staged a memorable performance. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter caught up to him after the show. Excerpts:

The Reporter: How does it feel to be performing in Ethiopia? How is the feedback?

Habib Koité: The welcoming was good. From the beginning when we boarded an Ethiopian Airlines plane in Bamako and found out that there is a direct flight from Bamako to Addis Ababa we were very excited. In Africa, traveling from one destination to the other there is always a need to transit through another country. On this occasion it was a direct flight from Bamako to Addis Ababa.

The welcoming was good and it was well organized. We were in the hands of a good company. It was quite an experience; a good opportunity to exchange information, to talk to people and to explore the city. The people are gentle with warm hearts.

My first visit to Ethiopia was 17 years ago. I came through the invitation of Alliance Ethio-Francaise. I played in one of the big theaters; thousands of people showed up. It was a free entrance event. Between the years, I see the difference in Addis Ababa; it has evolved so much.

What about the feedback of the stage performance, especially with all the similarities between Ethiopian and Malian music. Many felt at home with the sound. What do you say about that?

The culture and the soul of the people around the world can connect at a certain common point although we are far from each other. The common point between Ethiopians and Malians is the music; especially the musical scale which is pentatonic in both cases. The rhythms are also similar. I think the feeling is mutual; it is also the same on Mali’s side. Many Malians like to listen to Ethiopian music. Though they don’t understand the lyrics, the rhythm and the melody get to them.

It’s not only the lyrics, they might not know the artists, or where they are from. Let me tell you a story that resonates with this. There is a boy who works in my house; he usually listens to Ethiopian music. I know it is Ethiopian music since I listen to Ethiopian music. But the young boy did not know and guessed maybe it is music from the northern part of Mali. It made me smile and I brought a map and showed him where the music came from, and where Ethiopia is located.

Many Ethiopians also tell me they love my music and different Malian songs. So, the welcoming was before stage and I was at ease to come to the stage and perform. I was happy to be on the stage because I can give music. The crowd was very loving and I think that is a gift for a musician to be embraced by the fans.

You have been a musician for more than three decades. Veteran musicians see their music as an instrument to pass on a message and to fight a system. How do you see your music?

Yes. Even for me music is a tool with which one can pass a message. Through my music, I want to be able to show the soul of my culture.  My music is meant to give people, who are not in the culture, a chance to interact with the culture through music.  It is also a way to explore our humanness:  playing rhythms from my country to others and sharing that feeling of music to the others. They can imagine what my society is made up of. Sometimes I also take the opportunity to talk about society, the importance of living in a community, the environment, and about money (laughs).

You sing in different languages and fans seem to embrace your and other Malian musicians. Malian music is powerful. What do you say about that?

I sing in different languages in Bambara, Sorani, Mandinka. The power of Malian music traces its beginnings from the Mandinka Empire. The power of music in general traces its origin from these periods. There are many musician storytellers. They tell the story of kings, brave men, and patriots; they glorify the kingdoms in their stories. And the stories were cherished, archived, and passed through generations. The strong and powerful contemporary Malian musicians came from the long lineage of storytellers. Our strong part as musicians is that we know our past. The stories come to us as flashbacks and we sing. The names from ancient times are remembered. In Mali, there is what we call the long line of storytellers, musician, and poets, called Griot. These Griots also served as advisers to royal families. These highlighted one of the ancient civilizations of the Mandinka Empire and they were socially organized.

In some ways, they also served as the nobles’ mouthpieces. They know the story of the whole empire, genealogy; they were deeply immersed in Malian culture. They traced and connected everything. That is why Malian musical culture is very strong.

Did you continue the culture of Griots and the storytelling custom?

I am not really a storyteller; I am the noble of the Griots.  We have different groups of Griots; the nobles (those who are at the summit) are just one of the Griots. The noble Griot is praised by the other Griots. The Griot doesn’t work.

They take care of the nobles and vice versa; the nobles also take care of the Griot by providing what they need.

Many remember your music from Microsoft Vista. Your two songs, “I Ka Bara” (Your work), “Din Din Wo” (Little Child), were able to reach millions. Take us through the whole process?
I had an American producer and I think it was in 2000.  My producer told me that Microsoft want to buy my two songs to put into the new computer operating system, Windows Vista, which they were ready to release. I said ok. I hear about Microsoft but I did not have a detailed information as to how the company works. I was proud and happy that they  were interested in  my songs. The payment was good and was shared equally with my producer. When you initialize Microsoft Windows Vvista, you hear my music. It was really great. After these songs, I became more popular. People knew me through Vista. Going into a festival in the east of Europe, many people come to me and ask me to take my bag. I am surprised and I am thankful. Most of them know only two songs and they requested the two songs on Windows Vista.

How do you see Malian music penetrating the international market? There are famous musicians such as Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure, Amadou and Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare. How do you see the acceptance?

It is a great thing, and we are proud of that. It came from our culture. The music reflects the soul of Malian people and the culture. We are thankful of that acceptance. In Africa we have different music since we are diverse. It is good to be recognized. And those people who accept our music are open to other cultures. These kinds of people should be at the summit of the world leaders because they can see and feel different cultures, and are curious and tolerant towards them. In the world, we want more tolerant people who can embrace others in spite of differences.

Your music is classified in the world music category; so are  the works of most of the Malian singers and Mulatu Astatke of Ethiopia. Many say that this classification is problematic. How do you see that?

I am free and born to be easy. The people listen, and observe and for me if it is not bad, it’s not a problem. The name of the category world music could be problematic. Who decides to put music in that category and what kind of music falls into this category are questions that need to be addressed. The decision is one-sided. For sure, these people who decide are not Malians. If one thinks an Ethiopian music blended with western instrument deserves to be in world music category, then that person is not an Ethiopian. For me, it is not a problem. Those who assign that category and decide on the labeling are not from this side of the world and don't know the culture. Coming from a different musical concept, they try to put labels onto our musical cultures because they want to make sense of it in their own world. It is very surprising when people classify some music from Mali as Blues. If you ask the musicians who play in remote parts of Mali who never went to a music school or got any formal education about Blues, they cannot understand what it is. They have been doing their music for generations and for them it is not Blues. They might even be surprised why people are calling their music Blues. That is why we need to be tolerant of other cultures.

I can say my music is Malian music but Malian music is a lot much than mine. I think we must find a name for it. I think for them, it is very easy to name it Blues so that they won’t deal with the diverse music. So, they came up with World Music category. In their definition, World music is a music that is from Africa or Asia depending on the instrument that is played. It becomes a music that the western people understand a little and feel something. That is  world music for them. They don’t know the real name so they can give whatever  name they can find.

Who inspires you as a musician? Whom do you listen to?

I listen to every type of music. In my car, I have albums that I bought from the time when I was on the road. These are different genres of music such as Rock, jazz, or African music. Sometimes, my children put music in my car and I listen to that too. My 17-year-old daughter listens to Justin Bieber in my car and I listened to him as well. When my kids watch MTV and listen to music, I just watch and learn with them (smiles).

Your last album “Soô” was a dedication to the Malians who were affected by the insurgency  and the uprising. How did that affect you musically?

During the conflict, musicians in northern Mali were not allowed to make music. It was very hard. The coup d’état in 2012 led to a declaration of a temporary state of emergency where the government canceled all big events and public gatherings. It was not allowed to make music or to go to concerts for security reasons. At that time, I was rehearsing. Most of the songs in that album were about society, tolerance, peace, brotherhood, familyhood and communal life. I also talked about our roots as Malians. That is why I dedicated this album to all who are affected in the hope that the country regains its ancient glories.

Album sale is dropping with the copyright infringement and online piracy these days. So how are you dealing with that. And I also read about  you producing your last album at home. Is that true?

Album sale is definitely decreasing. So, one option to cope with this is not investing too much money on an album production. So, I decided to make everything at home in my son’s studio. My other albums were all produced in Europe, and it was easy to find a sound engineer. I invited musicians to play with me and they come and they played in my house as we record the album. We did not take musicians to Europe. Within a year, I did a tour all over the world. I had so many gigs. It was a good opportunity to sell my album. So, this is a mechanism that we are using to cope with the declining album sales. I am also fairly popular, so I have fans who buy my album and they don’t download freely. These are real fans who actually buy my album. But, for beginners (musicians), it is a very difficult time to sell an album.

What are you currently working on?

On January 1, I inaugurated my cultural center. It is a restaurant as well as a platform for all art types. Musicians can come and perform, and record their music there. I also play there; people come and watch me play. This cultural center is named ‘Ma Ya”.