Habib Koite & Bamada: Afriki

Chris May BY

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Habib Koite & Bamada

With his third album, Baro (Putumayo, 2001), Malian guitarist, singer and songwriter Habib Koite attracted the kind of celebrity endorsements you imagine some press agents might kill for. Joan Baez ranked Koite alongside Jimi Hendrix in the pantheon of guitar greats, while, backstage after a gig, Bonnie Raitt told him, "I would drink your sweat." Short of saying "I want to have your babies," Raitt couldn't have made her feelings clearer.

Genetically unable, as I am, to have Koite's babies, I can't top Raitt's enthusiasm—but I'll match it by saying Afriki, Koite's first studio recording since Baro, is the prettiest, most beguiling acoustic album to have come out of Africa this year, and an unusually successful marriage of traditional Malian and Western rock and folk musics.

Once again, the songbook is based on the gentle, sunny dansa style of Koite's hometown, Keyes, but draws on regional forms from all over Mali. Gorgeously melodic and packed with Lord-have-mercy hooks and changes, it caresses and cheers, and even when Koite ventures into the dark, minor-keyed, desert blues of the Peul region, and its most celebrated son, the late guitarist Ali Farka Toure, as he does on "Barra," he produces something velvety and uplifting.

There are some outstanding guest musicians—including Ali Farka Toure's regular sokou (traditional violin) player, the late Hassey Sarre, who's featured on "Barra;" the Benkadi de Koutiala troupe of antelope-horn trumpet players, who bring their trippy spirit-world vibe to "Nta Dima;" and a horn section led by saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, who add a sumptuous Latin-inflected ambiance to "Africa."

But most of the music is carried by Koite's regular band, Bamada, with whom he's been working, with some personnel changes, since 1988. It's a uniformly gifted group, whose members play an arresting mix of instruments—acoustic guitars, balafon (West African marimba), violin, harmonica, bass guitar, drum kit, and traditional drums and percussion. Second guitarist Boubacar Sidibe's playful harmonica, featured on two tracks, is an inspired inclusion, and its setting alongside talking drum and balafon on "Fimani" must be a first. The string trio and balafon feature "N'teri" is another of several memorable combinations.

Afriki closes with a solo guitar showcase, "Titari," in which Koite by turns approaches the instrument as though it were a kora (harp) or a jangling twelve-string played by "American primitivist" John Fahey. It's a microslice of the quietly ambitious cross-cultural sweep of Afriki, and there's only one thing to do when it finishes. Hit replay. I've been doing that all morning.

Tracks: Namania; N'tesse; Africa; Fimani; N'ba; Mali Ba; Barra; N'teri; Nta Dima; Massake; Titati.

Personnel: Habib Koite & Bamada: Habib Koite: acoustic guitar, lead vocals; Keletigui Diabate: balafon, violin; Souleyman Ann: drum kit, calabash, backing vocals; Abdoul Wahab Berthe: bass, kamale n'goni, backing vocals; Mahamadou Kone: talking drum, doum doum, caragnan; Boubacar Sidibe: acoustic guitar, backing vocals, harmonica. Additional musicians: Nba Kouyate, Oumou Damba, Hatoumata Bintou Kouyate, Djeneba Dansoko, Jean-Richard Codja: backing vocals; Andra Kouyate: n'goniba; Barou Kouyate: n'goni; Yoro Cisse: djouroukele; Hassey Sarre: sokou; Madou Sanogo: djembe; Benogo Diakite: kamale n'goni; Francoise Derissen: violin; Fabienne Dries: cello; Sekouba Camara, Steve Ferraris: congas; Lamissa Traore & Troupe De Benkadi De Koutiala: traditional percussion, horns and vocals; Pee Wee Ellis: saxophone; Matthew Holland: trumpet, Neil Sidwell: trombone; Dobet Gnahore: hudu.

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