Habib Koite & Eric Bibb,
Brothers in Bamako
(Stony Plain, 2012)

Mali, in West Africa, is much in the news these days. A bloody internal conflict with Islamic extremists has generated international anxiety and led to military incursions by France, its onetime colonial ruler. In better times Mali has been known to some as the nation to which the pentatonic traditions of African-American music, which played a role in ushering blues, jazz and rock into existence, can be traced. Over the past two decades Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and Corey Harris have collaborated with Mali's vernacular musicians to fashion sounds that smartly fuse Africa and America styles.

The folk-blues singer-songwriter Eric Bibb is the latest, joining with string wizard Habib Koite to create the consistently melodic Brothers in Bamako. (Bamako is Mali's largest city, and it's where this recording was made.) Most of the cuts are originals, though some borrow fragments of old lyrics and tunes. The album ends with a nonstandard treatment of the American folk standard "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad," preceded by a brooding resurrection of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" with an affectingly spectral arrangement centered on banjo and guitar.

As with other Bibb recordings, social justice and religious yearnings are prominent themes. Bibb's own playing, as always, owes a notable debt to Piedmont-blues (Brownie McGhee, Blind Boy Fuller, Josh White) and folk-revival influences. (Bibb's father is Leon Bibb, who was a figure in the 1960s Village folk movement.) In an album brimming with strong material, Koite's "L.A.," about the simple joy of drinking tequila in that city, stands out for its warmth and humor. On the other side Bibb's "With My Maker I Am One" affirms unity with all of humanity, from the most humble to the most exalted. It's a testament to Bibb's art that the song moves the listener, considering that in lesser hands an effort like this, however well intentioned, would have surely resulted in pretentious overreach. Instead, it feels exactly like the spiritual Bibb intended it to be.

Mostly, Bamako is just Koite and Bibb on assorted acoustic stringed instruments, with percussionist Mamadou Kone, singing in English or French. With no false steps the musicians take the music where it wants to go, which is to a lovely place indeed.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 March 2013

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