Concert Review: Habib Koite brings the sound of West Africa to UCSD

The name Habib Koite might not elicit any glimmers of recognition in the eyes of the average UCSD student, but it would be a mistake to write off his upcoming tour date at Mandeville Auditorium on Jan. 17 as “”just another world music show.””

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The Mali singer and his band play music that is more than “”afropop;”” it’s gentle yet energetic, refined yet widely appealing, played with acoustic and electric guitars alongside traditional Mali instruments, meshing rich West African styles with blues, rock and even Cuban music.

It’s about a plurality of cultures; it’s about racism, sexism, love, smoking, the Internet and the negative effects of two wives’ beating on all of the husbands’ children.

And if that’s not enough, the music is beautiful enough that when Koite lapses back and forth between English, French and Bambara, the listener barely even notices.

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While Koite is hailed today as a world music icon by the likes of Rolling Stone, success was long in the making. Growing up in a family with a long line of griots (a social class of muscians in Africa), of which his mother was one, Koite nevertheless was headed to become an engineer before his uncle persuaded him to pursue his musical gift at the National Institute of Arts in Bamako, Mali, where he studied classical Western styles of music.

Upon graduation, he was hired to teach at the school, meanwhile giving private guitar lessons and working nights playing bar shows with a cover band. After a few grueling years, his efforts with his own band, Bamada, earned him a reputation in France and a hit radio song, “”Cigarette Abana (The Cigarette is Finished),”” in West Africa in 1992. The song, about a boy who decides never to smoke after becoming sick when his friends pressure him to try a cigarette, seems too simple to be taken seriously, yet its earnestness and catchiness were successful in light-heartedly spreading his anti-smoking message.

The release of Koite’s first album, “”Muso Ko,”” soon followed, and success came with it. However, his meshing of styles on this debut carried more weight than is immediately obvious, for in Mali, each region — even each town — has its strict musical styles and guidelines, and his blending of cultures was criticized by more conservative musicians.

The fact that the track “”Fatima,”” played in a style from Northern Mali, became a hit in Southern Mali was an impressive achievement, considering that the conflicting regions have shed blood in the past.

His two more recent efforts, “”Ma Ya”” and “”Baro,”” released in 1998 and 2001, respectively, continued on in the same vein, with subtly beautiful acoustic guitar arrangements accompanying the tenor’s exploration of a variety of societal issues, the most near to his heart being the need for youth to embrace modernity while retaining the various cultures of his country.

One of the songs on “”Ma Ya,”” “”Kumbin,”” expressly addresses this issue in English: “”I love life but I fear a world too similar, I love life but fear imitation … I like technology but fear for our forest, I like technology fax and internet … I’d like to know if elsewhere this happens another way, I’d like to know if elsewhere others feel the same way.””

The title track of “”Baro”” offers a different aspect of Koite’s range; according to the album’s liner notes, the lyrics, sung in Bambara, describe a simple Mali tradition.

However, the expert acoustic guitar-picking and heartfelt choruses propel it into a heart-wrenching tour de force.

If the wide press coverage of Koite’s past U.S. tours is anything to go by, the artist and his talented band are above all a great live act, interacting with the crowd and playing an incredible range of instruments. Tickets are on sale through Ticketmaster and through the University Events Office: $15 for students, $20 for general admission.