West Africa is a hotspot in "world
music" today. The region-which includes Mali, Guinea, andSenegal-has
produced not only a slew of traditional musicians such as Mamadou
Diabate and Khalilou Traore, it's also home to a great number
of experimenters. Among those who are mixing it up with other
styles are Djeli Moussa Diawara, who has recently released a phenomenal
collaboration with guitarist Bob Brozman called Ocean Blues (Melodie)
and Rokia Traore, a pioneering woman guitarist whose CD Wanita
(Indigo) has had a strong showing on world music charts.
Thus to choose two musicians to tour as "The Voices
of Mali" seems more than a little presumptuous. Yet there I was,
sitting in the midst of a full house at the Washington Center,
waiting for the start of the show. Habib KoitŠ and Oumou Sangare
were in Olympia. Somebody pinch me!
Really, though, if one has to choose two "voices
of Mali," these two aren't such a bad pick. Habib Koité,
who was actually born in Senegal, comes from a line of Khassonke'
griots (the musician-storytellers of West Africa). He got his
first international break when his group won the Voxpole Festival
in France, which resulted in his recording of the song "Cigarette
Abana" in 1992. The song became a hit in West Africa.
Koité's US debut album Muso Ko (Alula -
1997) hit number 3 on the World Music Charts Europe His 1999 release
Ma Ya (Putumayo) spent an unprecedented three months at #1 on
the European world music charts and was described by Rhythm magazine
as "one of the most successful meldings of acoustic guitar with
traditional African instruments ever recorded."
This same man opened the show by saying: "Thank
you for coming to see a not popular band." Yeah, right. The Olympia
Center was packed. The energy of the band, led by the modest Koité,
carried throughout the 10-song set and left the crowd on their
feet, even after the encore. It was hard to believe the night
was only half over.
Oumou Sangare has a more traditional musical approach,
sticking largely with the Wassalou music of her native region
in Mali. I'd been enjoying her CDs for a long time before taking
the time to read the lyrics and find out more about her. The traditional
music belies a progressive message for Mali's women, a plea for
human rights, economic equality, and an end to violence and discrimination.
Sangare recorded her first album Moussolou "Women"
(World Circuit/Nonesuch), in Mali in 1989, and it became the country's
most popular cassette ever, selling over 200,000 copies (and untold
numbers of bootlegs) throughout West Africa. Her other two CDs
available in the US are Ko Sira "Marriage Today" (World Circuit
/Nonesuch, 1993; reissued in 2000) and Worotan "Ten Kola Nuts"
(World Circuit /Nonesuch,1996). Worotan is a reference to the
traditional bride price paid by a suitor to the woman's family.
Sangare's set was more subdued than Koité's-in
part because of the limiting of percussion to a single djembe.
The music was rich and deep, even for the many in the audience
who couldn't understand the lyrics. Oumou and her two young backup
singers tossed percussive half-calabashes around in time with
the music, yet this playfulness was offset somewhat by an apparent
iron-clad control Sangare exerts over the band. The backup singers
seemed to smile maniacally whenever Sangare glanced their way,
which prompted my companion to call them "African Barbies."
bore herself royally, feeling unapproachable in her orange robe
and matching headwrap, her shiny burgundy high-heels, and her
bright red fingernails. We were in the presence of a global diva.
The atmosphere lightened up only at the final number, when Habib
Koité returned to the stage. Sangare smiled and relaxed
and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Of course, the Washington
Center audience never stopped having a good time, enthusiastically
applauding the music, costumes, and dance. Olympia may never have
seen a show like this before, but with this kind of response and
turnout, the town's relationship with "world music" looks rosy
©Scott Stevens, December 2000