There's a Griot Goin' On

Guitarist and singer Habib Kolte expands on the vibrant musical traditions of Mali

Africa's musical heart is buried somewhere in Mali, a nation of diverse cultures and home to world music heavyweights like Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita, and Oumou Sangare. American music owes its own debts to the West African nation as the likely cradle from which blues developed. But as in many places where television and global homogenization increasingly masquerade in culture's skin, Mali's distinct traditions are fading. Guitarist and singer Habib Koité has a home-grown remedy.

Born into the caste of Khassonké griots -- the hereditary singer-historians in West African tradition -- Koité lifts rhythms from many of Mali's ethnic groups and recasts them with a modern sensibility, while remaining true to their disparate roots. The practice has earned him some criticism from cultural purists back home, but the rebel son persists: His aim is to guard tradition from the influences of hip hop, Europop, and other musical imports that pull at the younger generation.

Malian guitarist Habib Koité, dubbed the "African Clapton" by critics, 
plucks his way to fame.
Jeffrey Apoian
Malian guitarist Habib Koité, dubbed the "African Clapton" by critics, plucks his way to fame.


Wednesday, Sept. 5, at 8 p.m.

Admission is $20


Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk), S.F.

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Touring in support of his third album, Baro, Koité arrives with his Malian ensemble Bamada for a stirring show at the Great American. Baro follows 1999's Ma Ya, also released by Putumayo World Music. Where Ma Ya was dominated by infectious, upbeat tracks highlighting both Koité's deft finger-picking and his incorporation of Western elements, Barois far more subtle and restrained, allowing traditional rhythms and Koité's soft-spoken vocals to shine. Tuning a nylon-stringed guitar to the pentatonic scale of much of Mali's music, Koité evokes the sounds of traditional West African stringed instruments like the kora and the n'goni. Don't expect to understand the lyrics -- except, perhaps, for a few refrains from the California-ready anti-smoking anthem "Cigarette Abana" -- but plan on peering inside a soul whose aspirations are breaking down borders.

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