Habib Koité, Mali's musical phenomenon, talks about his mission to embrace the huge variety of traditions in his homeland as well as to give them a voice.
Blood and music
"A lot of music from Mali has a brother outside Mali," says Habib Koite, waving aside my suggestion that there might be a flamenco influence in his guitar playing. "The scales you hear on some ethnic music, like my own music, the sounds are like some Andalusian music. But my grandmother, she doesn't know Andalusia or flamenco." He sighs. "I'm lucky because I travel and I was open to all this music, and I know the music around the world, where things come from. But my grandmother doesn't know anything like that."
Koité certainly does travel. He has been touring his last album, Afriki, since 2005. This week it's Abu Dhabi; February will see him doing northern Europe, the US and Canada. But if the guitarist seems to get around a lot, that's nothing compared with his music. The chances are good that you own some yourself. You might have one of his 250,000 albums sold worldwide, or one of the innumerable pirate editions of the same (more on that to follow).
More likely, you're one of the hundreds of millions who use Windows Vista, in which a couple of his songs - I Ka Barra and Din Din Wo - are bundled. Koité makes world music in the simplest sense - it belongs to the world now - even if, as he insists, it is Malian to the core. But what is Malian music? "Generally in Mali," Koité says, "we play just the music from our own street." And so the styles vary, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, region by region. You need only look at the diverse Malian musicians who have made names for themselves over the past couple of decades.
There's the Tuareg rock of Tinariwen, Ali Farka Touré's knotty desert blues, the keening wassoulou music of Oumou Sangare, Boubacar Traoré's hypnotic folk, the joyous, uncategorisable music of Amadou & Mariam. One of the strangest records I've heard in recent years is by the Malian singer and balafon player Mariam Bagayogo: it sounds like underwater gamelan. There are ancient traditions - the griots, the hereditary troubadour caste that mediates disputes and recounts the deeds of kings - and durable trends, such as the Cuban-style dance bands that have been a part of the country's musical landscape since the early 1960s. And then there's Koité, a griot by birth, who has made it his mission to channel the whole teeming mass of it.
"I'm one musician," he says, "who tries to play each type of music... And when I play the music from another part, I like to be sure I keep the identity, because I want the people from each part of Mali to recognise the music from their home." He has achieved a few successes: most notably in a country riven by violent north-south factionalism he scored a hit in the south with a northern-style song.
Still, Malian people are protective of their traditions, not liking to hear them mixed up with outside influences. Besides, Koité believes the diversity of his material has made him slow to catch on at home. "They know me through one or two songs," he says. "And I have a lot of other songs. When they listen they don't know it's me. They think, who is this? That takes some time because I don't play the same music... In Mali we recognise performers because the artist plays the same things. I play really different things."
Perhaps Koité is best appreciated overseas. That's where the money is, at any rate. "It's not possible to sell albums in Mali because everybody makes copies, piracy," he complains. "The musicians who are lucky to be given the opportunity to go out of Mali, to go out of Africa, those can have something, because they play in the area where things are OK." He pauses for the obvious rejoinder. "I know piracy is everywhere. But in Europe for example, they buy your music, they pay you money and you come back home and help your family."
Koité has expressed doubt in the past that western audiences much care about the intricacies of his ethnomusicological project ("They have their own ideas about what I'm doing," he once told The New York Times). All the same, listeners around the world have taken to him. His career has seen collaborations with the country singer Bonnie Raitt, successful albums, reverent features in guitar magazines and that massive plug from Microsoft.
He is an easy sell: dreadlocked and mild-mannered with a warm vocal style and quicksilver playing. Indeed, Koité got a name for himself as a guitar wizard - Raitt was reportedly so dazzled by his prowess that she told him, "I would drink your sweat," and if it were likely to do any good, quite a few other players would probably line up for a dose, too. What they really need, though, is Koité's blood.
"All my family are musicians," Koité says. "My father was a guitar player. He played guitar and banjo and accordion. My brothers, older brothers, they all played guitar at home... I decided to play guitar, and I had the opportunity to learn kora, to learn another instrument, but guitar was really first in my heart. I decided to use my energy to learn to try to play guitar like those traditional instruments."
This led him to develop an individual style, quite unlike the way guitars are commonly used in African music. Instead of the usual thumb-and-forefinger method, he learnt classical picking at the national music school in Bamako. He played the works of western composers and took over conducting the college orchestra when his tutor died, all the while refining his hybrid approach to music. "I tried to play classical guitar like some traditional instrument with open strings," he says. "I tried to play like the kamele n'goni, I tried to play like the kora, and just tried to be close, because those instruments don't have the same capacities... I tried to be close and respect the weight, the sound of the note and the space between notes. If you can respect the space between the notes you can be very close to the instrument."
The other ingredient in Koité's developing style will be more familiar to readers of guitar magazines. "Before I played all my classical guitar I liked to play like some guitar hero, or some rock-guitar hero, like Jimi Hendrix and Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd," he says. "My big brother's favourite gift was one guitar, electric guitar, and one amplifier." Pushed for examples of other early models, he comes up with the jazz fusion player Pat Metheny. "For a long time I listened to him. He was great." But it was hard to get to hear these artists. "At the time in Mali in the 1970s, we had just one long-wave radio station," he says. "We didn't have any TV, no channels. Nothing."
He reminisces about hearing Genesis records in the houses of friends who travelled outside the country, and copying tapes to play on a small cassette player. Nowadays, of course, western music has made greater inroads into Mali. Still, the traditional sounds are holding their own against the interlopers. "We have a small group of young musicians who want to play American music," says Koité. "But most of the young musicians play Malian traditional music. I have a big hope for the next generation, because we have a lot of young famous guitar players, and they play Malian scales, Malian music."
This is no rigid purism, mind you. "Traditional music will change, slowly slowly," Koité says. "And that's great." Still, you only need to hear a little bit of it to understand that it is worth protecting. "We are lucky," says Koité. "Myself, I am very proud to come from this country and to be a musician of this country where we have a lot of different music. And we are very proud, and we want to keep that."
Habib Koité is performing at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage on Thursday. Entry is free.