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Habib Koité at the Highline Ballroom

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Habiba Koité & Bamada
Highline Ballroom
New York, New York
March 16, 2010

Many shows at the Highline Ballroom are general admission, but the venue will change things up for certain shows by putting in tables and turning the hall into a large jazz club. They probably made the wrong decision by bringing out the tables for Habib Koité's dynamite show on a warm Tuesday in New York. No matter, the gregarious guitarist from Mali had them dancing in the aisles anyway.

Throughout the show, Koité and the rest of his band, Bamada, always seemed to have a smile on their faces. The smiles were infectious and gave the show an air of celebration, something that is not apparent when listening to Koité's records. Listening to Afriki (2007, Cumbancha / Contre-Jour), one feels as if heavy clouds are slowly developing on a beautiful day. It's not quite rainy, but there is a feeling that alternates between happiness and foreboding. Live, that feeling is reversed—it is as if the clouds are just starting to lift and the sun is peeking through. The smiles of the band account for the reversal.

Koité strives to make more than music—he creates an atmosphere, a mood. Each band member has a niche, a role to play, and the music has as many layers as there are musicians. Different lines, each of which would on its own be nothing more than a drone, combine to push the listener to enter a meditative state while staying conscious enough to dance. Most of the improvisation and danceability on this night came from the percussion section, whether it be the balafon played by Kélétigui Diabaté or the shoulder drum worn by Souleymane Ann. While Koité barely moved from his position in front of the microphone, Diabaté and Ann were all over the stage, literally dancing to the beat of their own drums.

The majority of the tunes played came from Afriki, including "Namania," "N'tesse," "Africa," "N'ba," and "Fimani." Violinist Regina Carter, well-known in jazz circles, joined the group on stage for "N'Teri," also off of Afriki. Here, instead of creating her own layer of music, Carter was permitted to improvise over the thick mixture created below her. Although this was the group's first time playing with Carter, she fit in seamlessly, her violin mourning its call over the ocean towards Africa.

Near the end of the show, the band allowed some of the more creative dancers in the audience to mount the stage and strut their stuff. Men and women alike, they acquitted themselves well during an extended percussion and guitar jam before Koité himself showed them up with his own native dance. The show closed with "Cigarette A Bana," one of Koité's better-known tunes.

For Koité and his Bamada bandmates, it's about the music first and then the concert. Allow me to explain. Several artists feed completely off of the energy of the crowd, and give uninspired performances when the audience seems preoccupied. This band, however, are inspired by each other. Unspoken communication between the musicians is rampant. Even at the beginning of the show, when the crowd didn't quite know what to do with the tables, the band's demeanor did not change and the music was top notch. Koité has been making incredible music for a while now. It's about time he gets some recognition in the States.

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