Habib Koite to bring innovative, acclaimed music to UCSD

    You may have heard the word “”griot”” in reference to artists in Africa, but what exactly does this term mean? A griot appears to be a type of multifunctional historian, storyteller and praise-singer whose role in society entails, in part, spokesperson, reporter of news, adviser, musician, teacher and ceremonial leader. As a descendant of the noble line of Khassonké griots (from the Western frontier of Mali), guitarist and composer Habib Koité takes on some of the griot’s functions by infusing his innovative musical style with cultural elements that represent different ethnicities and regions of Mali.

    On Jan. 23, Koité will partake in a Regent’s Lecture/Concert, “”Electronic Griots: Musical Connections in the Cycle of World Music,”” at 6 p.m. at Price Center Theater. The event, organized by UCSD’s African and African-American Studies Research Project and the sociology, ethnic studies and music departments, is free and open to everyone.

    Koité, an award-winning musician, is one of the few African artists who has managed to break into mainstream pop and gather welcoming commendations from numerous critics, including a proclamation by Rolling Stone hailing Koité as “”the biggest pop star of the West African nation of Mali.”” His music is entrancing and melodic, mingling traditional aspects of Malian rhythms with a unique collection of contemporary styles, including blues, jazz, pop, flamenco and hip-hop, and his singing style is more rhythmic than the more leisurely, spoken griot styles. On his recent album Baro, Koité covers the musical spectrum with the Cuban-influenced, soulful ballad “”Batoumanbe;”” the upbeat, Latin-style version of his first hit “”Cigarette Abana;”” the lyrical “”Roma,”” which is infused with a flute-like instrument; and the more classical, acoustic arrangements of “”Kanawa”” and “”Tere.””

    Koité was born in Sénégal in 1958. His developing talent left an imprint on Koité’s uncle, who urged his nephew to pursue a career in music rather than in engineering. Koité enrolled at the National Institute of Arts and during his studies he spent time playing with other musicians, including Kélétigui Diabaté, who is considered to be Mali’s king of the balafon (a West African xylophone). Within six months, he became the conductor of the school’s prominent band INA Star, and in 1982, he graduated at the top of his class and was automatically hired by the school as a guitar teacher.

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    In 1988, Koité formed his own band, Bamada ‹ a nickname for residents of Bamako, which roughly means jaws of the crocodile ‹ with childhood friends, including Diabaté. With Bamada, Koité began experimenting with original lyrics and inventive sounds, and playing at festivals. He also picked up two prestigious awards, a first prize at the Voxpole Festival in Perpignan, France, and a Radio France International Discoveries prize. In 1995, Koité and Bamada released their first album, Muso Ko, and immediately started performing at various venues and festivals throughout Europe, including the World Roots Festival. Their second collaboration, Ma Ya, released in 1998, garnered immediate acclaim both in West Africa and the United States. The subsequent Mali to Memphis tour introduced the lively act to a new stable of fans, including Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt.

    Since the critical acknowledgement, Koité and Bamada have released two more CDs ‹ Baro in 2001 and Foly in 2003 ‹ and taken part in several tours, including Voices of Mali with Oumou Sangare. In 2002, Koité won a Best West African Artist Kora, Africa’s Grammy Award. For now, Koité and Bamada are in the midst of spreading their infectious rhythms, and in a sense, Koité is effectively undertaking the significant role of a griot.

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