Habib Koite:
making a musical life

Habib Koite was planning to be an engineer. But music got its teeth in him and wouldn't let him go.

"Life made me a musician," the prominent singer, songwriter and guitarist from Mali said during a recent interview, with absolute certainty in his voice.

Koite was prepared to study engineering when he received a recommendation for the National Institute of Arts in Bamako, Mali. "I didn't know we had a school for music," he said. "I had never heard the name." But in this case, it helped to have an uncle who worked for the Ministry of Education. "I went to my uncle and said 'What's up? I never chose this school.' He told me, 'I know how you like music. It's why I sent you to the school. I know you can be happy there.' "

It didn't take Koite long to settle in, becoming the school's band conductor after only six months of study and, four years later, a music instructor as well. "I was in my area. There was music everywhere," he said. "I was the youngest in the band, and I was chief of the band. I worked all day. ... My mother even asked me, 'What's up, you never come home.' But I stayed in the school."

Koite, speaking on a Wednesday afternoon by telephone from Brussels, said he was flying out the next morning for the United States, where a whirlwind tour would take him from New Mexico on Friday to Georgia on Saturday, Pennsylvania on Sunday and Oregon on Tuesday. On Monday, apparently, he gets to rest.

Music never came hard to Koite, who said his family's surname means "a group that can make music, or tell stories."

He watched his parents and older siblings playing when he was young, learning the art seemingly by osmosis. He also was inspired by his paternal grandfather, who played a traditional four-stringed Malian instrument called a kamele n'goni.

"In our house, music was everywhere," Koite said.

"It was never difficult for me. It was natural," he added. "I touched the instrument ... and it was a way to life, to live."

Besides his studies and the school band, Koite played in bars and clubs to learn more about performing, he said. "When I was 18, maybe 20, I started to think about music in another way," he said. "I discovered what I can do with music."

He started writing his own songs, many of which draw on Malian traditions but also incorporate elements of folk, jazz, blues, African-American and flamenco styles, he said.

His lyrics often explore social issues of his homeland, family, change and other "human things," he added. "I try to do something through the music," Koite said. "I write (about living) together peacefully and happily. There is so much to say to the people. ... But sometimes the lyrics aren't important. It's more about the music."

Koite sings in English, French and Bambara, the native language of Mali. In concert settings, audiences often don't understand the words, but Koite hopes they understand the message.

"I know what I give them," he said. "It's in my soul, in my heart. It's the soul of Malian music ... and they can feel how we try to meet them through the melody. The music brings some images of another way of life."

Koite tours with his band, Bamada, which roughly translates as "in the mouth of the crocodile" and is a Malian nickname for residents of Bamako. He and Bamada have recorded several albums together, including Muso Ko, Ma Ya, Baro and their latest, Afriki.

Koite spends a lot of his time on the road, and he said he loves performing -- but there's a downside, too. "I enjoy it a lot," he said. "But I miss my family. I miss my wife and kids. I miss my friends. But you can't have everything."

For now, he's content to continue living the life he seemingly was meant to lead.

"I never think about my future," he said. "Everything comes slowly."

[ visit the artist's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

9 August 2008

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