Habib Koite Seeks to Heal Mali through Song

Contre Jour CJ030
* * *

Soô is a Bambara word meaning "at home." On his latest record, Habib Koité honors his homeland of Mali with such gentleness and sunshine that one would hardly know that it's a troubled land these days (courtesy of radical Islamists). The closest Koité gets to dealing with social problems is "Khafole" and "Need You." The first song deals with the issue of female circumcision, though it's told from the point of view of a mother's pain of losing her child to a botched job. The latter, the only track in which Koité sings in English, is about an arranged marriage from the perspective of the beloved young man being cast aside for a rich suitor, but even its tone is one of resignation.

Get the idea that Habib Koité isn't about confrontation? He's practically a musical U.N. for Malians, right down to singing in four of its native tongues: Bambara, Dogon, Malinké, and Khassonké. The vocals and arrangements are smooth to the point of evoking Caribbean calypso. Most of the subject matter is equally upbeat; a favored theme is connectivity–between friends, among his countrymen, and between men and women. Songs such as "Dêmê" and "Bolo Mala" have fluid swooping harmonies the likes of which one hears during the finale of a pop music fundraiser.

The album is very pleasant, though my personal favorite tracks are those that break with the hypnotic feel of the rest of the album. On "Diarabi Niani," for instance, Koité busts out his guitar chops, which are considerable. (Koité is rightly famed for his open tunings and five-note scales.) "Téréré" is also interesting–an homage to Malian string music featuring Koité's guitar, Toumani Doubate's kora, and Basse Kouyate's calabash-bodied n'goni. If you're looking for something more raucous, check out "Balon tan," which is about playing soccer. It has a frenecticism not found elsewhere and sports some tongue-twisting vocals, all of which puts us in motion as if the game was hotly contested. There's even a rap bridge from Master Soumi.

This album isn't Koité's strongest work, but it's still a good one. Most listeners will find it diverting, but will miss the song's central messages unless consulting the liner notes (MP3 won't do!). I applaud his desire to stay positive, but I longed for more musical contrast. After all, one appreciates the sunshine most after a bit of darkness. —Rob Weir  

Here's a YouTube video of Koité performing the title track.

No comments: