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Malian Guitarist Brings The African Blues To New England

Malian Guitarist Habib Koite
Courtesy of Habib Koite
Malian Guitarist Habib Koite

One of Africa’s most renowned musicians will be performing in New England this weekend. Musician Habib Koite is from Mali in West Africa. He has a unique guitar style. His instrument is tuned to the pentatonic scale, which simulates the traditional stringed instrument called the n’goni.

The style is at the heart of what Koite says he wants to do with his music. His country, Mali, has about 24 different ethnic groups, and Koite tries to integrate the style of each group into his music. He also sings the songs in the local languages and dialects.

“Bambara, Mandinka, language of Tur people and the Bobo people…I have a song in Songhai from the people from the north of the Sahara. I have some songs in Tamasheq. Tamasheq is the language of the Tuareg people in the north of Mali. Yeah, I try to join everybody.”  

Koite says he wants his music to be a bridge between the different groups. And when his songs become popular, people notice.

“The people say, ‘Who sing our song?’ That happens a lot. ‘Who sing our song like this? Ah, OK, it’s Habib. He’s another Malian but he’s not from our micro-culture.’  And many try to train me and to give me some other song to play.”  

In the U.S. and Europe, Koite’s style is seen as similar to the Mississippi Delta Blues. But Koite says, in Mali, local musicians aren’t familiar with the Blues.  

“Many musicians in Mali, who live in bush, they don’t know the meaning of the word “Blues.” If those guys who never go out of Mali, who do not know the meaning of Blues, if they play, for me, this guy, he play like Blues. At this time I think the roots of the Blues come from Mali.”    

Koite says he’s disheartened that international audiences no longer come to listen to music in his native Mali. That’s because parts of the country have been destabilized by terrorists in recent years.

“Those troubles affected the music in Mali first. We had this big festival in the desert in the north of Timbuktu. The whole world would come to this festival some years ago. And it’s a great, great moment. We did the last one in 2012. But things are going very down, and this is not good for music.”    

He’s hoping that will change soon. In the meantime, he’ll continue to reach international audiences by performing his music outside the country.   

Habib Koite and Bamada will perform at the Quick Center in Fairfield, Connecticut, on Friday. They will be in Somerville, Massachusetts, on Saturday and Burlington, Vermont, on Sunday.

Copyright 2017 WSHU

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year. In addition to providing long-form reports and features for WSHU, he regularly contributes spot news to NPR, and has worked at the NPR National News Desk as part of NPR’s diversity initiative.