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The Voices of Mali: Habib Koite and Oumou Sangare
The Washington Center, Olympia WA,
24 Nov. 2000


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."

Sangare 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 indeed.

©Scott Stevens, December 2000




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