He's been called the African Eric Clapton. But on Habib Koite's latest release Foly, there's not a blues lick in evidence. Things are considerably livelier than any woke-up-this-morning groove. "Cigarette Abana," one of his biggest hits, marches along smartly to a Cuban rhythm, a slinky salsa overlaid by rippling guitar in the manner of King Sunny Ade. Koite has said that the song was a homage to Cuban musicians including 90-year-old singer Compay Segundo, brought back to life through Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club recordings. Cigarette Abana loosely translated means "no smoking in this area," Koite announces in his broken English on the live version on Foly.
The guitarist's main medium can be loosely classified as jazz, but it doesn't fit any of the American constraints usually identified with that genre, though Koite does have a Lionel Hampton veteran in his band. Keletigui Diabate, who plays the African xylophone, or balafon, recorded with Hampton in the '60s.
Koite's sound is lush and layered. His six-member band performs on 20 different instruments, and his vocals are a multi-cultural hybrid of scatting, rapping and chanting. The singer/guitarist objects to being called a "world musician," believing that people who follow his music should know, as Africans do, what particular type of music comes from what region. Not that Koite is a purist. He's dedicated his career to blending styles from other cultures and genres into traditional Malian music. He labels his music danssa doso. Danssa is what the natives of his hometown, Keyes, call a popular rhythm peculiar to their city. Doso is the word for hunter's music, a Malian cultural tradition.
Koite was a child prodigy who says he is self taught, learning to play by absorbing the music he heard his parents play. As a teenager he was attracted to the music of The Who, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, Pat Metheny and George Benson. He first studied classical music in college and wanted to study engineering. Instead, his guitar skills landed him a spot at the National School of the Arts in Mali's capitol city, and earned him a job as a professor of guitar upon graduation. Koite performed in clubs at night, playing a cross-cultural mix of music that included jazz and pop as well as Latin music.
The guitarist's music appeals to fans of folk, jazz and world music fans. His '98 Putumayo's release Ma Ya got him world-wide critical acclaim during the label's Mali To Memphis tour. And appearances at the Montreaux Jazz festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival won him a cult following. Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt became supporters, appearing on stage with him. Raitt recorded a cut, "Back Around," with Koite on her new album Silver Lining. In 2002, the artist won the Kora Award, the African Grammy equivalent, for Best West African Artist.