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Habib Koité: one world groove

Habib Koité & Bamada

Until Friday night, everything I knew about Habib Koité could have been summed up in three words: “Legendary African guitarist.” All I’d ever known of West African music was the roots of the blues in the work of Ali Farke Toure, and I suppose I had a notion that Koité came from the same place, geographically at least.

If pressed, I would have speculated (correctly, as it turns out) that Koité, like the late Toure, is from Mali. I might even have guessed that his music had made its way around the globe on the Putumayo label. But I couldn’t have told you that he plays with an all-star 5-piece backing squad called Bamada. Or that his musicians are virtually legends themselves. I definitely couldn’t have named the instruments they play: in fact, I’d never even heard of a balafon or a kora or a goje before, let alone imagined them combined with talking drum, harmonica, electric bass, drum kit, and Koité’s own nylon-stringed electric guitar.

All this I learned in the brief spell of an evening. But the most important thing I got out of Koité’s two hour show at Toronto’s Revival club wasn’t fact, it was feeling. There’s a point in every good show where the audience starts to move. At Koité’s show, that point was when the first note was played, and it affected everyone from the back wall all the way to the stage, all night long.

From the moment anyone entered the room, they were moving in time. You couldn’t be still; it wasn’t humanly possible. I spent the entire evening dancing, despite being surrounded by total strangers. Self-conscious? You couldn’t be. Everyone – and the audience was real Toronto rainbow  – was similarly affected. Next to me a German family danced with abandon equal to my own: boomer parents, millennial daughter, united in blissful unconcern.

In a show that was equal parts live jam, and love-in, complete with random dancers making their way onto the stage to shower the band with twenty-dollar bills, Habib Koité and Bamada simply rocked the Revival to the rafters.

I don’t know much about West African music – not even enough to describe the beautiful, complex, organic sounds that arose from the band. Suffice it to say for Habib Koité and Bamada, rhythm rules, but melody is lovingly treated too, with Koité’s rich vocal always at the forefront. His slightly throaty voice has a characteristic rasp, but is easy on the ears, and though he sings only a little in English (most of his songs are in French or Bambara) it feels as though all the songs are of love or longing. Yet for all the passion in his voice, Koité’s face reveals a single emotion throughout: joy.

Joy, passion, longing, love: These are the forces of nature in us, and music beautifully made is a force of nature too. The natural response is to dance.

It is how we become one with the music, and we did.

I’ve often scoffed at the term “world” music – as if music could come from anywhere else. Yet it occurred to me that night that it CAN come from somewhere else: namely, the self, the ego and all its issues. So  music that makes people forget the self, and become one with the world, is perhaps aptly named after all.

That’s what Habib Koité and Bamada’s music did for me. Great grooves, many moves, one world.

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