Habib Koite & Bamada,
(Putumayo, 2001)

As usual, Putumayo releases a CD that does not disappoint. Move over Cesaria Evora and Eyuphuro, I think I have another favorite artist from Africa! Habib Koite hails from Mali. Koite is an excellent guitarist, superb composer and soulful singer. He founded the band Bamada (essentially meaning "in the mouth of the crocodile") in 1988. Baro is their third release (following Muso Ko in 1994 and Ma Ya in 1998).

Koite's family has traditionally consisted of musician-historians known as griots. According to the promotional material, he "was exposed to ancient Malian traditions as well as modern blues, soul and rock and roll." In another review I wrote for Rambles, I discuss fellow Malian Mamadou Diabate who plays the kora -- a harp-lute type instrument. I mention this because I was impressed with Koite's ability to make his guitar sound very close to this African instrument. In fact, when I first heard the CD, I looked in the liner notes to see who was playing the kora since I am now familiar with its sound. I was surprised to find out the kora was not one of the instruments mentioned.

Koite is joined in Bamada by several musicians who are noteworthy on their own. Most notable is Ke'le'tigui Diabate, who plays balafon (a West African xylophone made of wood) and violin. He has been recording since the 1960s. The rest of the band is Souleymane Ann on drums, calebasse (an African drum) and backing vocals, Abdoul Wahab Berthe on bass guitar, kamale n'goni (a three-stringed rhythmic instrument) and caragnan, Mahamadou Kone on tamani, tamamba, guiro and dum dum, and Boubacar Sidibe on acoustic guitar, harmonica and backing vocals, plus Michel Seba on congas, bongos and bells on the song "Cigarette Abana."

My favorite song, without a doubt, is the title track "Baro (The Chat)." The song is about the relationship between "Sanankus." Through humor, jokes, mock arguing and generally poking fun at each other, this relationship bonds various ethnic groups within Mali in solidarity. What strikes me personally is the guitar playing and Koite's vocals, which together grab your attention completely. This CD is worth its purchase price just for this song alone!

If Habib Koite & Bamada have a signature song, it would be "Cigarette Abana." This catchy selection was originally recorded in 1991 and was a hit throughout West Africa at the time. Essentially the song is about a boy who decides "no more cigarettes" despite peer pressure from friends. I suppose what I find most interesting about this piece is just how danceable it is. I can understand how it became a hit.

I have yet to run across a Putumayo release that is not better than average. Baro by Habib Koite & Bamada is an excellent CD for any world music collection. There are 13 songs that showcase not only traditional music from Mali, but also some crossover selections that merge in more Western styles. I think this CD has the potential to appeal to quite a diverse audience. It does not matter if you do not understand the words. The music speaks for itself.

[ by Wil Owen ]
Rambles: 26 January 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.