Habib Koite at Zellerbach
Although I’ve long listened to his music, I’ve never seen Malian guitarist Habib Koite and his band Bamada perform in person. So his performance at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall this evening promises to be a real treat.
Habib and Bamada take the stage attired in Malian shirts and pants — ones dyed using plangi and other resist techniques —and they don woolen hats.
Habib’s own guitar, his second guitarist, electric bassist, and American trap-set drummer might all be seen as concessions to Western music. However, they are played Malian style, alongside three other members who play traditional instruments, as Habib himself does (but on just one song). A dreadlocked African drummer (who plays talking drum and other instruments) and an older xylophone player round out the ensemble. The most unusual instrument onstage is a giant dried calabash, engraved with hut and palm tree and enthroned on a black cloth set atop a box. It’s played by intersticing five fingers between each stick, and it makes a hypnotic clicking sound as wood hits gourd.
Between songs we get informative mini-lectures delivered in Habib’s halting English. Sample: “The law in Mali is not just that every man in Mali can have four wives. We can have different colors, and different women are in different places.” Later on, he runs down a garbled story about his tour, including arriving in the morning and playing before 2,500 children; he also tells us that “What the African has to do is develop Africa himself.”
After an hour-and-a-half, Koité and Bamada leave the stage, and, following a standing ovation, return for a three-tune encore as wild women from the audience ascend to dance on the stage.
At the start of the harmonic next song, his second guitarist solos on harmonica, and the talking drummer thumps out an intro. Subsequent tunes show a similar harmonic interplay. Throughout the evening, Habib’s playing alternates with drum, African percussion, and even, at one point, violin played by the xylophonist. Koité is reknowned guitar style; he tunes it a pentatonic scale and plays on open strings as one would on a kamale n'goni, a Malian six-stringed guitar (from the Wassalou region) which he himself plucks on one number. Other repertoire staples resemble the blues or flamenco he learned at the feet of Malian guitarist Khalilou Traore, a member of the now-legendary Afro-Cuban band Maravillas du Mali.
Koité's intimate, laid-back, atmospheric, melodic vocals (sung in English, French, and Bambara) compliment his flashy stage style. At one point, he petitions a lady to come on stage, taking her in his hand and leading her to the front where she faces off and dances wildly as her plays an African drum.
After an hour-and-a-half of hard-driving performance, Koité and Bamada leave the stage. A standing ovation bring them back for more. A flood of dancing female audience members take the stage as Koité plays exuberantly stage right as the evening ends.
Habib Koite's latest recording is “Afriki.”