WOMAD Highlights: Habib Koité interview (part 1)

Habib Koité

Coming from a noble line of traditional Khassonké griots, Habib Koité assimilates rock and jazz influences into his classical guitar training. Having played with Bonnie Raitt and The Art Ensemble of Chicago, he came to WOMAD with his seasoned West African band Bamada.

I began by asking Habib about the traditional role of griots in West African society.

The griots are members of an ethnic group with special names. For many centuries, since the Mandinka empire, they were the people who talked, who talked in crowds as messengers. They brought the news of one village to another, from one emperor to another. And when people wanted to get married, it was the griots who spoke between the families, because it was the uncles of the people who would decide about the marriage. The griots also knew the family histories, the family trees of every name in the Mandinka empire. At that time, the royal family took care of the griots. Now, we don’t have an emperor, but each griot is taken care of by a particular family.

The griots can be musicians because they were allowed by society to make music and they are storytellers too. Some griots, we call them the fina, they don’t play music at all, they just talk and tell stories. They come from Segou.

Habib is from a griot family and we discussed how this helped him develop his understanding of music and songwriting.

I wanted, from when I was very little, to follow my mother around everywhere—she was a griot, a singer. And my father was a guitarist and my older brothers also played guitar. So I was always surrounded by music but I never thought about my future in music or that I could be big in music. But the music was just there in my blood. My mother, father and brothers all played and my grandfather, who I knew, was a specialist in traditional stringed instruments, mainly the ngoni. His father, my great-grandfather, also played the ngoni. I wasn’t around then, but I hear he was a very famous ngoni player. Some people think he lives with the Devil now because he was so good—he’s like a legend.

When I was growing up, my family sent me to school like most other children. I was a good student but at the same time I was playing music with my friends all the time, it came very naturally to me. I got to know guitar at home, and my brothers played flute, so I did too. I didn’t learn guitar, I just ‘touched’ it again and again, took a lot of time and slowly, slowly I knew how to play it by the age of 10. When I was 20, I went to the school of music and learnt classical guitar over four years. Being at the school, I discovered another way of playing the guitar, the classical way, with notes on a page—the meldoies, the harmonies. It helped me a lot to grow.

Music from Mali is wonderfully diverse. I asked Habib about where he feels his music sits, in terms of tradition and with respect to other prominent artists such as Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré.

When I was young my friends and I would listen to a lot of rock music from England and from the US, both American black music and white pop music. And I’d get my guitar and try to play some songs by Stevie Wonder or Jimi Hendrix or others and try to play the chords. And I was also playing the traditional music of Mali. Then, going to school, it changed the way I played guitar in terms of a classical training.

So I tried to create another way, the sound of my classical guitar with nylon strings pushed me to play guitar like traditional string instruments where the strings are nylon too—nylon or leather. I tried to play like the sound of a kora or ngoni. I remember, in 1992, there was a writer and guitarist who heard me playing and said that he’d been around Africa listening to different guitarists and that what I was doing was something new, something special and that I must continue.

I’d been playing clubs in Bamako for 15-20 years, doing all kinds of styles: African, European, jazz (even if it’s not very good!). I’d tried many styles of music so when I decided to make music for myself, all those influences went into it.

So, for example, I might start with a traditional African rhythm, percussion is very important in our music, and I might take the rhythms of one or two percussionists and combine them and give that to the bass guitarist to play, another set goes to the rhythm guitar and I just play around with these ideas, listening to see what works. Being free to try these things I suppose means that I can end up with a sound that’s different to other musicians in Mali.

Check back for part 2 of this interview.