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Interview with Habib Koite

St Mary In The Castle - Sunday, 22nd October 2017

Written By Hannah Collisson

One of Mali’s leading musicians, and descended from a line of Khassonké griots (traditional troubadors), Habib Koité is back in the UK this October for the first time in a decade, joined by longtime band Bamada. 

Ahead of the tour he shares with Hannah Collisson the story of how he became a musician, talks about some of his high-profile collaborations, and how he hopes his music might bring people together.

Hannah Collisson: What can audiences expect from this tour?

Habib Koite: The set I play is not decided in advance, but completely depends on the room, how people are. I won’t decide until the night.

HC: This is the first time that you have been back in the UK for a while, but you are no stranger to touring Europe and America. Do you enjoy life on the road?

HK: I’ve done this all my life, for 30 years I’ve never stopped. I tour a lot, I move a lot.

And yes I like it, sometimes I miss home but when I’ve been back home one or two weeks, I’m ready to get out on the road again.

To be on stage and play music for people this is a great pleasure that I miss quickly.

Closer to home, I play some festivals in Mali, and I have my own space - Maya’s Place, a hotel and performance space in Bamako where I live, and sometimes I play there.

HC: How did you find your way into music?

HK: As a teenager I was thrown out of school for playing truant and not working hard, I was too busy playing music, and it consumed all my thoughts.

My mother sent me from Bamako to Keyes (western Mali) to live with my uncle, who was a school principal, to make sure I got a good education.

At first I didn’t know anyone in this new city and I was a model student, top of the class.

In the second year I got to know people in the city. I made friends with a guy older than me who worked on the trains, and played guitar. When he was away he gave me the key to his room so I could go and play guitar.

My mother had forbidden me to play. I began to skip school again and joined a band and began to arrange their music.

Unknown to me, the bandleader was an uncle of mine, and a good friend of the uncle I had been sent to live with. They knew that I played a lot, but I had no idea.

When I graduated school I planned to study engineering, but the two uncles had other plans, and enrolled me at the National Institute of Art (INA) in Bamako, realising that music was my first love.

HC: How did you develop your signature style?

HK: I went to the INA and it was the best place for me to follow my passion for music. I studied music academically for four years, classical guitar and flute. I graduated top of my class.

African music is in my blood, but in this school I learned classical guitar, including the posture and fingering.

I learned some classical pieces, and partly through the classical tuition I learned to play guitar in the style of traditional instruments such as the kora and the kamele n’goni, a traditional four-stringed instrument associated with hunters from the Wassolou region of Mali.

The first journalist who highlighted my particular way of playing guitar was Banning Eyre, an American, who was also a guitarist. He travelled to Africa to meet guitarists and published a book about African guitar players.

I first met him in 1993 and he told me me that he knew a lot of guitar players but with me he had discovered something new, and told me I must continue to play in this way.

HC: What are some of your highlights in terms of your many collaborations over the years?

HK: I was invited to the US for the first time in 1995 for a special event, the 50th anniversary of the birth of the United Nations. From 2000 I came to the US a lot and quickly made friends.

The first musician I collaborated with there was Bonnie Raitt. I played on one of her records. I also played with Jackson Browne.

I made an album with Eric Bibb, Brothers in Bamako - he came to Bamako and we recorded together. It was just him and me and a percussionist, he played blues I played mandinka style. It was a great album and we did a lot of touring.

In fact I was recently with Jackson Browne in Haiti working on an album with him and some other musicians, to promote peace and justice.

HC: Have your children followed in your footsteps musically?

HK: I have grown up children, a daughter aged 26, a son, 24, and another daughter who is 20.

My son studied music and sound engineering is now musician and sound engineer living in Brussels. My first daughter works in a bank in Mali, and my youngest is at university in Turkey.

I know I’ve had a lot of musical opportunities compared to other musicians and therefore worry about my children following in my footsteps.

When my children want to make music, I cannot tell them no, but I tell them to go to school first.

My son, when he was ready to go to university, wanted to study sound engineering, and told me he didnt know what else he could do if not music.

HC: You will be joined on tour by your band Bamada. What instruments do you have in the band?

HK: I play classical guitar with nylon strings and flute; then I have an electric bass and kamele n’goni player; I have a guitar player on banjo and acoustic guitar; a keyboard player who plays a lot of traditional sounds including balafon and flutes.

I have two percussionists, one on calabash and djembe, and electronic pad, the second plays talking drum and bara (a gourd drum made from a calabash).

We are six on stage in total.

HC: What inspires you to make music?

HK: I’m curious about all the music in the world, but I make music from Mali. In my country, we have so many beautiful rhythms and melodies.

Many villages and communities have their own kind of music. Usually, Malian musicians play only their own ethnic music, but me, I go everywhere.

My job is to take all these traditions and to make something with them, to use them in my music.

Sometimes I think about melody first, before I have any idea of the subject. Then I can go to the guitar and find the way of the melody on the kora, and the lyrics come after.

The lyrics are generally about family, environment, about love. I don’t write directly about politics, but I write about people.

In my country we have had troubles in the north for many years.

I sing about the relationship between ethnic groups to bring people to think about peace.

HC: Your latest album Soô was released in 2014, is there a new record on the horizon?

HK: I am working on a new album which will be released in 2018. My phone is full of material, not for anyone else to listen to, just for me.

I don’t find it an easy process to make an album because I am holding in my mind the arrangement for every instrument, as well as all the song lyrics, which can drive me crazy.

I have the band, so if I have an idea in the middle of the night, the next day I call them and we try it out.

Habib Koité and Bamada, with support from kora virtuoso Sura Susso are performing at St Mary in the Castle on 22 October, 3pm.

For tickets visit: 

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