New York City
June 30, 2007
B.E: This album, Afriki, is really beautiful. I've heard it only a couple of times, but I'm already very fond of it.
H.K: It makes me happy to hear you say that. Since it’s you saying it. That reassures me, because making this record has not been easy.
B.E: What is the story of this record?
H.K: The history is, first of all, I'm a musician who has made already 1, 2, 3 albums, who has made many tours around the world, and who has many fans, and who has a production structure. With an artist like me, people are always asking, "New songs? And a new album?" This is to be expected. People always demand this. So for this album, people have been asking a lot, a lot, a lot. It's been a long time without a new album. I did a live album, Foly, to calm things down a little. Then after that, again. "And the new album?" Especially in Mali, people are always asking, "Habib, what's gone on?" So why does it go this way? It's mostly because I've been doing so many tours the last five or six years. These have been great years of touring all over the world. So many trips has somewhat changed my way of living—my basic, African lifestyle. In the past, I did tours, but I was still basically living in Africa, in the African system. But when I started to travel a lot, a lot, a lot, there was a destabilization in my life. The time I had to do many things was gone. I had to accept these changes, and come up with a new way of doing things.
Before, I used to find time with my musicians in Bamako. We would rehearse. Afterwards we could stop for a month, and live. Songs came to me during that time, slowly, slowly. We rehearsed. We took our time.
B.E: Do you write songs in one big group. Or do you accumulate them, little by little?
H.K: Well for the last two years, I've been really focused on it. Because I knew it was time. We decided to take a break from touring and production. I needed time to retreat, and be calm, because I've never been able to write on the road. I can have ideas, but to practice it so that it becomes something, there's never time. There's never enough of a break. So we decided to have a break during which we would only do exceptional things. But of course, there were many exceptional things, and we found we were leaving all the time. So what I started to do, I bought a computer. I learned a little bit of Pro Tools. And then I found something easier, this program called Garage Band. It's much easier. I was able to learn that, and I can use it quickly in a hotel, plug in the guitar, and assign it to a track, sing a little. It's a studio in my bag. And this is how I was able to advance a lot.
I went one time to visit my friend Omar Koita, a Malian musician who lives in Hamburg, Germany. He has a home studio, and when I went there, he said, “Everything you do, I am going to record." So then we passed a few days till six o'clock in the morning. We drank a little wine, and then all night long, I played, and he recorded. I would say, "Okay, this is the bass line." And he would play on his keyboard. And he would record everything. It was a good time. He helped me a lot. The recordings were not well made. There was a lot of improvising. But afterwards, I had the basic ideas for the record. I had a demo. Then we could begin rehearsals, and humanize the music. I could play for Keletigui, myself playing a muted guitar, and say, "Keletigui, this is the balafon part." Everyone listened to what I had done, and used it as a point of departure, and we played. During those rehearsals, afterwards, I found some new songs that were not on the demo. And there were a lot of songs on the demo that ended up getting thrown away.
B.E: But for you, this was an entirely new way to work, right?
H.K: Yes. Truly. A revolution. Because it's not easy to write the kinds of songs I play. Because the line that I want to keep is a line that I don't know if it's only me who finds this, or if it's a musical line comes from a different music of Mali. I feel like I'm the only one who sees it, and then sometimes, even I don't see it. I have to search for it, to keep it in that spirit.
B.E: And when you write, and particularly I'm talking about the songs that actually make it to the record, do they usually start with guitar or with words, or with a vocal melody? Is there a rule for you?
H.K: There can be many different beginnings. There's no rule. For example, someone might say to me, "Habib, you must sing about this..." That happens to me all the time. People call me over to them, and tell me about something that I must sing about. If this person is serious, I listen seriously, and decide how serious their idea is. I don't say no. I just keep the idea within me, and life goes on. Sometimes, a melody might come to me when I'm playing guitar. The melody. Or sometimes, there are words that come into my head. Particularly a chorus. That could come at any time, in the car, on the toilet. [LAUGHS] So I can have an idea for the chorus, and the melody, and the words. Basically, I'm always looking for the words before developing a whole song. Then as it comes together, I make changes. Then I'm always looking for some change to put in the song to keep it from being monotonous.
B.E: So the song grows, little by little. It's not like it arrives complete in your head, right?
H.K: No, in my case, no. It doesn't come like that. I have to work on it. But apart from that, there are musical ideas that I want to do. This is something that I say I must do, for example, the music of the Peul of Niafounke, in order to bring in new kind of diversity to my music. That's a decision. But there is no musical idea yet. It's like I decide I must paint my house blue, but I have no idea what kind of blue or where to find blue paint. It's like that.
For example, on this album, there is a song called “Barra.” This is a song I decided to make in the mode of the music of the Peul, the way they merge with the Sonrai in Niafounke. This is the realm of Ali Farka, of course. So I had the chance to find musicians who could give me ideas, because they play this music all the time. I do not play this music all the time, but I understand it well. I understand the melodies. I know how things go. I know the old songs that come from there. So I picked an old song from there that is called, a Sonrai song. [SPEAKS SONRAI] The song says, “You must stop talking so much and get to work.” It is a very old song. It was sung a Sonrai, but it comes from the region of Niafunke. This was my first goal. So I was working with the musicians of Afel Bocoum, Mamadou Kelley, who plays the guitar, Hamma Sankare who plays the calabash, and also the small violin that was played by Hassi Sarre. He played this, not long before he died. He never even heard the song, sadly. And Yoro Cisse plays the monochord. These are people who play this music very naturally. So there was me, the younger brother of Basekou Kouyate, who plays the bass ngoni, and another even younger brother who plays the higher ngoni, and then the violin of Hassi, and the calabash of Hamma. And all the singing is me.
B.E: So did you change the words to the song?
H.K: Yes, a little. But I didn't change them that much. I developed the idea of not talking so much. Stop all the chatter, and get to work. It's the work itself that really advances you. Barra is work. So stop talking so much, and get to work. If it's talking to figure out how to do the work well, then that's good, but if it's just talking, talking. Palabre. You know palabre? It's discussion, but discussion that's a little too hot. We say, stop that and get to work on results. In a way we’re talking about development. If you work hard, you can have independence, you can have riches, and you can have reputation and respect from others who also work hard. So I encourage Malian farmers who work despite a very difficult set of conditions. I try to give them courage to go on and do their best work. We don't have very much rain, and not much greenery for the animals to eat. And also, I talk about business people, fishermen. I sing the same phrase that says, "Stop talking and get to work," in Sonrai, in Peul, and in Tamaschek, in the same song. [SAYS IT IN THE THREE LANGUAGES] This way, the message can go to all parts of Mali, in the south and in the north.
So this was a decision to make music like that. I thought about the beauty of this particular kind of Malian music, of Ali Farka Toure, and all of that. I approach the kinds of notes that he plays on the guitar. If you listened to the sound from afar, the sound is clear, but if you are a guitarist, and you come close and watch the fingers of the guitarist who his playing that, you see that it is something else. The technique. The way the notes follow in rising and falling, the very fast semitones that are played. Ooo la la!
B.E: I know what you are talking about. You can get close to that sound, but always feel like you have further to go to really get there.
H.K: That's it. I saw that, and it made me rediscover yet again the beauty of Malian music.
B.E: Speaking of beauty, I really love this song “Nta Dima.” That really has a different sound.
H.K: [LAUGHS] Yes. What is that? That also was a decision. I really like this group who plays on that song. This is a group that comes from the region of Sikasso. They play the horns of the antelope, the white-mouthed antelope. They use the horns of that animal to make different sounds. Only four notes. And with percussion, each player has a moment when he plays his note. Everyone has his one note that he has to play.
B.E: And you have to know when to play it.
H.K: That's it. There are five musicians, and then with the percussionists, nine. So this is an extreme form of synchronicity. Because together, they form an infernal machine. When you listen to the notes, you hear one particular rhythm. But when the percussion is added, the rhythm changes. It's great. I love this. Personally, I love this music a lot, because whenever I have seen it at a party, I just have to listen. What are they doing? And at a certain point, I discovered something important. I saw that the four notes of the horns play a different rhythm, but it's not what it seems. The combination of the notes and the percussion creates an impression that is not the truth. The truth of the notes of the horns are this rhythm. [SINGS A 3 or 6 COUNT.] That is easy. But when the percussion comes, it plays something completely different, and at that moment come you have two things that come together, that create the impression that they are playing [SINGS A DIFFERENT RHYTHM]. So before I had thought it was one thing, but now, it's something else. It's the percussion that creates that impression. The two together create this infernal magic.
B.E: That is the essence of polyrhythm—two different rhythms that come together and create a third rhythm.
H.K: Yes. That's exactly it. I will try to tell you this quickly, but I had already invited this group to play on my album Baro. I invited a group to come and do a little singing with us. I spoke with the elder of the group, and asked him if his kids are learning to do that. And he said no the kids are not doing that, because the kids say they will not make money doing that. “Ahhhh,” I said, "That is a problem. Because this is too beautiful to let it disappear." So I asked them if they do other kinds of performances, and he said yes, ethnic festivals in the region. Maybe in the airport. They might be invited to the airport to play music to welcome people. But they don't make much money that way. They have to do other things, gardeners, and things like that. So I said, "Okay, I want to make a song with you." And with me, because I was a little younger, and people knew me, and respected me, I thought maybe with me on the television with this song, they would be interested, and younger people would take a new interest in this instrument and give it a new life. That was my intention, to try to help a traditional instrument that was disappearing.
B.E: So, to record this song, did you use the young guys, or the old guys?
H.K: No, there are no young guys. Okay, there are two young guys, the sons of the leader. But the rest are the older guys. In this group, there are five who play the horns. Then there's percussion, shaker, karagnan (metal scraper), bara (gourd drum), and doun doun and djembe. And everyone sings. Because there are different moments. Some moments are for percussion and horns. Then with the signal from the percussion, they stop. The horns stop, and the percussion continues with the voices of the horn players.
B.E: So, how did you write your song around this?
H.K: That is also very interesting. The horns, the five notes, gave me the impression of a heptatonic (seven-note) mode. I heard [SINGS]. That is not a pentatonic mode, but when they sing, when they stop playing and singing together, they sing in a pentatonic mode. [SINGS] But, when the horns come, the horns play [SINGS]. So there was a conflict. Which one should I pick? And I had to play my guitar along with it. It was very, very difficult to tune my guitar to those horns. I tried to get as close as I possibly could. And then I put a sponge through the strings, to mute the sound. But not with my hand, because if I use my hand, it is not free. So I used a sponge.
B.E: That’s the same technique the bikutsi group from Cameroon used. Tetes Brulees. Nta Dima means “I will not give it to you.”
H.K: Yes. So I could do that to get the sound I wanted. You can hear the sound is not clear. So now I had to create the song, but again, what mode? The singing is pentatonic, and the horns sound heptatonic. So I asked them what they were singing. They said they were advising someone not to give his daughter to a young man who doesn't work, who is not a good person. “Nta Dima” means “I will not give her to you.” I must give her to someone in whom I have confidence in who will care for her, someone who is a good worker. So I decided to make my own text in reference to my own daughter. My daughter, Awa, is 18 years old now. In the song I say, "I am not going to give my daughter to someone who is not a farmer. If you are not a farmer, you will die during a famine. Always, you'll be hungry because you don't have rice and millet at home to eat.” He must be someone who is a businessman, because a businessman, when someone wants to marry your daughter, you always ask what kind of work they do. That’s the way it is in Africa. If you come to ask about marrying a girl, they're going to ask you what you do for work.
And when you say, "I'm a businessman,” Ooooo. A businessman! Of course, we also think that a businessman might be someone who has gone to jail. What business exactly? So I said, not a businessman, because I have fear of businessman. I'm suspicious of people who don't sleep at night, like the ibou, the bird. This bird is nocturnal. He goes out at night. As soon as the day begins, he goes and hides in the trees to sleep. So I make up metaphor for people like this who stay up all might to drink. We say among us that someone who smokes herb “climbs in the trees." So I'm not going to give my daughter to a man who doesn't sleep at night, someone who's always outside at night. A man must be at home at night with his wife, for a normal life. I talk about people who are seeking the hand of a girl in marriage. So of course, the griots are going to ask a lot of questions about this person's family. If you come and ask me to give you my daughter, I'm going to ask who are you who wants my daughter? So there's a lot of humor and joking in the song.
It was very, very difficult to record this song. We recorded in Bamako in a small studio where there were not many means. This was in the studio of Barou Diallo, Studio Yelen. He has a small room for the sound gear, and a small recording room. So then there were all these musicians, nine people, and I needed to explain everything to the young, Belgian sound engineer. I think this was the biggest experience of his life. These musicians are only used to playing together. Now we tried to separate them, the percussion here in one room—we turned Barou’s salon into the percussion room—and everyone else in the small room. That was not easy. We started at nine in the morning, and we finished at 9pm. One song! And after that, the sound engineer and me, we had to edit. I edited on my Garage Band. In the song you hear the singing [SINGS]. I sing, and they answer. In reality, it was not like that. And they have not yet heard what I did, because I have cut things to create the singing. They did all their choral singing together. But I just took this one line. And you know how you can move things around. Well, that’s what I did, and in between, I put my singing.
B.E: So they haven't heard this yet?
H.K: No, no, no. When I go back, I'm going to invite them to a party, to eat. We’ll have some wine, red wine. And then we will listen to the song, all of us together. Okay. That's that song, one, big musical experience for me. It's the sound of Minianka. They are from Koutiala.
B.E: What a story. Let's go back to the beginning of the album and talk about the very first song. “Namania.”
H.K: “Namania” is a beautiful girl who comes from the region of Kayes, from among the Khasonke, my ethnic group. She is very beautiful, but there is a boy who has discovered her. Everyone in the town knows that Namania is the most beautiful girl in the village. But there is a boy who has come to say that, "No, no, no. It is no longer her. There is a girl six houses from the shadow of the tree at the entrance to the town, and she is more beautiful than Namania. Oooooh, I'm in love with her. She's so beautiful. She's more beautiful.” He says that Namania has a long, pretty neck, and long arms, and every beautiful thing on her body, but that does not mean she is the most beautiful. Everyone needs to come and see this woman because she is more beautiful. So they went to see, to look at the girl. Whew! People were stopped. There were so many people there come to see this, and the boy and said, "No, no, no. You look, but you don't stop. You must look and see that she is more beautiful than Namania. But then you leave. You must leave. I wish to stay with her."
So this is a song of my own ethnic group that I sing because there are many Khasonke traditions, and I don't sing that many songs of my own ethnic group. Yes, I do them, but I do them in another way. Maybe people want to hear them more clearly, more directly. People want to hear it in a way they will understand right away, with all the rhythms, all the little things, the dance, the language—everything is Khasonke. Also, it’s personal. That’s the second reason. The first reason has to do with the girl who is more beautiful than the first girl. The second reason is that I wanted to pick music from the Khasonke.
B.E: How abut “N’tesse”?
H.K: “N’tesse” means, “No, I cannot.” In the song, I speak about solidarity in the big family, the big Manding, or Malian, concession. There are always events that cause the family to have to come together, like baptisms, deaths, funerals, marriages. Women work very hard. They are very organized to prepare something like that. I call on the women of the family, because it’s not just two. It’s 10 or 12. Because they are the cousins. Before long, it becomes 45. All the women, all the family, all the children must come together today. I cannot do this alone. Because today everyone is there to celebrate the child who was born. Everyone must be there. Everyone must be there to greet my child into the world. I can’t do this alone, welcome a child to the world. I need everyone. So the song is about that particular Malian kind of solidarity. When there is death, everyone comes to speak with you. When they speak with you, that calms you. It relieves grief. They are for soft words of reassurance. And this is very important. Those small words can do a person a lot of good. We become wiser in the face of death. But I can’t do this alone. I always need other people, to live.
Also, I give the example of the preoccupation of a policeman, who is trying to avoid as many accidents as possible in the city. Also the preoccupation of a prisoner to become free, to leave prison. And the preoccupation also of the chauffeur, who is trying to avoid accidents in the city. These are the things I talk about this song. Also the preoccupation of the President of the Republic, who wants the children of the country to have the best possible future. It’s like that. The big Malian family.
B.E: Nice. And the music is especially sweet on that one.
H.K: The music comes from the territory of Wassoulou. I’m using the kamel n’goni player of Oumou Sangare, Benogo Diakite. He plays there, but he’s down low, just to give the feeling. My guitar is there also. As I say, it is very difficult for me to make songs, because I don’t have time to rehearse and reflect. I have little time to sit quietly and think, “Ah, this needs to be like that.” So in this song, I did not create a lot of different moments apart from the basic feeling. I don’t change the mode. I stay with the pentatonic mode. And when I’m in the chorus, I sing in a different pentatonic mode. The guitar changes a little. So then I was looking for some way to make another break. And as I had been listening with my son to a lot of music by Usher, the American rapper. He likes to play around with Garage Band and Pro Tools. So we have been listening to a lot of Usher. Young people really like to dance to his music. He is the big love for my son. Me too, I know a lot of soul music and a lot of rappers, thanks to my kids. I’m glad they’re there to help me see new things in music. Through them, I know a lot of things. Here in the US, I bought my son a program called Jam Pack. It’s a CD with the parts of each song of a singer like Usher. There are 12 songs. If you put it on your computer, you can see the separate tracks.
Anyway, what I learned from that was a manner of composing, a way to create arrangements from what has already been recorded, to create moments of silence, to feature one instrument or two instruments, so that you have a hole in the sound. Maybe it’s a measure, or a few measures, four measures. One click, and the instruments are back again, creating a new feeling. It’s like arranging after the fact. So we did that. Then later on, Jacob Edgar [of Cumbancha Records] had many ideas as well. This part, stop all percussion. Then bring it back here. And again here. We did some of that at Jacob’s studio in Vermont, and also in Belgium.
B.E: This album was recorded on three continents, wasn’t it?
H.K: Three continents! Two studios in Bamako, then going back to Belgium, then back to Bamako. Then Vermont, at Jacob’s Cumbancha studio. But I told you about this demo. A lot of the things were first done in Hamburg with Omar. So coming back to this song “N’tesse,” we tried some of these arranging techniques, but it’s subtle. It’s not obvious. You have the calabash, and the bara, and congas. At a certain point, they all stop, but the guitar and the kemal n’goni continue playing. The all the percussion starts again, just to create a little change.
B.E: You don’t find very much of that sort of arranging in commercial recordings of Malian traditional music. The groups generally just play right through. You don’t get much arranging at all.
H.K: No, sadly, no.
B.E: Let’s talk about the song “Africa.”
H.K: “Africa” is basically the title song of the album. “Afriki” in Bambara. It speaks about Africa in the past, a land of hospitality. A land of great attraction, that brought explorers and adventurers, who came to discover the continent. We say that the Africans were mostly peaceful, and welcomed these visitors from Europe who came to discover. They were well looked after. They were welcomed. And once they were welcomed, they installed themselves, and at a certain point they began to enrich themselves with what they found there. They relied on deceptions. They were tricky. They behaved tactfully, but with self-serving intent. They were many who did that. There were many who used that sort of approach to get what they wanted in Africa. And if they had to, they used force to get what they wanted. I’m speaking about the colonialists in general. And now, when the sons of Africa wanted to go themselves outside, they were surprised to find the doors closed. “Please, you do not enter here.” So the song talks about that. It’s the moment when the children of Africa discover that other people are not like them. We welcomed them, we were open to them, but now, they close the door on us. These people do not want to be disturbed by strangers who did not come from their milieu.
A strong word for that is “jatigia.” Jatigi, the patron, is well known in Mali. We say that if you have someone staying with you, you are his slave, and you give him everything. You give him food and a place to stay. I heard that long back, in the cadre of strong friendship, if you received a friend with you, you gave him your wife. You gave one of your wives your friend. Now, that is a little extreme, but it’s one of the examples people cite to emphasize that the jatigi—or host—has such a strong sense of hospitality. When the children who were born and grow up in that kind of education go and stay with others, and others say, “No, no, no. We are not like you. We don’t welcome people. Go home.” The strong moment comes when the children decide to return home, with the feeling that in the world, people are not polite. So I speak about that. I speak about young Africans who want to go to Europe or America, who are ready to die, to sacrifice their lives for this. This is something very sad to me. When I see the images of the bodies of young people, 20 years old or 18 years old, being pulled out of the water because they took small boats to leave from Senegal, or Ceuta, Morocco come to go towards Spain. When I see these images, it makes me feel very, very bad. I ask myself, “What are they thinking? Why would they sacrifice their lives. Why? What is so bad in their own places that they are prepared to die?” You go, but in going, you risk dying.
So I ask, “What is the thing that pushes these people to flee, and die?” This is a question that deserves to be answered, and the simple answer is that it is the economic crisis in Africa. And also, the problem of development. The images of the world that young people can see on the television, images of America and Europe, these are everywhere right now. Even if you are in the village in Africa, you can see all of this. So is the dream of youth to believe that Europe and America are El Dorado? Everything is beautiful, everything is good, everything is easy? All of that contributes to make people leave, especially the young. And there is also the influence of the fact that Africa was mostly colonized by Europeans, in general, and all this colonization brought to Africa a certain culture from Europe. Africans went to school. For example in my country, we learned everything in the French language, and a lot of that penetrated into our culture. We took influences from French culture. So now, young people to want to go and see what goes on in France. When the colonizers left, there was a promise that was given. “I came to you, and I took many things from you. I am leaving, but I promise I will not leave you alone. I have brought you technology that you did not know about. I have received a lot from you, and now I’m leaving, but don’t worry, I will help you so that you can succeed also.”
That was also a difficult moment in the years of independence, when we were left. After we had seen the development of Africa by the colonizers. Now we were left on our own. The Africans were on their own, and that was a moment of many questions, a powerful mix of things. The promise was made, but it was never realized. The promise to be equal, to communicate as equal partners—this was not respected. And then, now, we say that in the entire world we are all together, and that Africa is a part of the world. It’s a part of the world that also deserves a certain development. It deserves help in combating famine, and diseases like AIDS, to combat infant mortality, to relieve the debt, or at least reduce it. Many things like that. To find a solution to the problems of corruption, and poverty. All of that exists in Africa, and solutions must be found, and there are international organizations that want to help. They want to do something for Africa in their programs. You have the OMD, and the Africa 2015 program. There is an eight point plan. I don’t have the eight points in my head, but they include the education of youth, the environment, combating infant mortality—things like that. Yes, so all of these things are happening. People want to help Africa, but in reality, very little changes. So I ask the Africans themselves, I ask each African as an individual. I don’t speak about groups, because when you talk to a group, everyone can hide behind the power of others. So want to talk to one African. Each individual. Each African must be aware. Everyone must think about the best future for Africa, and understand that it is in his or her hands. Not to think that it is someone else who is going to solve it. No. It is you. You yourself. Then you have to think about this.
And the solution is not right here. Maybe we’ll be like martyrs, but we must think about the future, the kind of future that we would like to have today. When we look at Europe and America, if we start today, we also can do something for the future, to make it better for Africa.
B.E: It’s a beautiful song musically.
H.K: I will tell you something that you can understand, because you are a musician who loves Mande music, and plays Mande music on the guitar, and you like very much the great Djelimady. This is very interesting. The chord progression in “Africa” comes from another song. It takes some existing music and changes it a little bit. I want people who know this music to sense that there’s something new, but also to recognize something of themselves in it, something that comes from tradition. So is tradition, but it’s new. Two different feelings. So to create this feeling, I took the chords of the song “Toubaka.”
B.E: Okay. I did hear that.
H.K: The music comes from “Toubaka.” Now, Keletigui [Diabate, Bamada’s balafonist], he plays that song very well. So I took the chords, and I just changed the movement. I liked the chords, but now it changed the way they move. I changed the timing. And this is how I created the basis of the song, “Africa.” But then I also had to create another moment to distinguish it further from “Toubaka.” So the chorus is “Toubaka,” and the verse is something else that I created. The music is cyclic. And there is a hint of Cuban music, or salsa. A friend was telling me they had listened to a record by Kasse Mady Diabate, and that the music was like salsa music. It was interesting to me that this person’s ears were trained to pick that up as salsa. The musicality, the rhythm. He was right in a sense, but it’s not that simple. So I put some of that salsa feeling also into the song. You hear the sound of the timbales. And the balafon plays the ostinato.
B.E: I hear that. And of course, there’s been a long fraternity between Afro-Cuban music, son and salsa and so on, and Mande music. So you’re in a strong tradition there. What about the song “Fimani?”
H.K: “Fimani” is a black person, a young black person. This is a girl who says that among all the boys, it is the black one that I love. He has a horse. I often see him riding his horse. He has gold on his body. He is the one I love. It’s an old Bambara song. But I played it instrumental here, because everyone knows the song. So I didn’t sing it, because it’s sung too often. I just played it on guitar. [SINGS] With a few solos, for me, for the harmonica, and there’s a balafon solo. So this was just an example of something that people know, but presented in a different way.
Then we come to “N’ba.” “N’ba” is my mother. It’s a song that I did in the spirit of reggae. I like that a lot. I dedicate this one to my mother. I’m singing about mothers. And I say mother in all these different languages, Bambara, French, Peul, Sonrai, Mosse or Morre. All of those words mean mother. The song talks about each time I travel. I would always go and see my mother to say goodbye and tell her, “I’m going to America,” and each time she would say, “You are leaving again?” She would take my hand, and then put out her tongue and lick my hand three times. She did that three times. And I would say, “No, let me go wash my hand.” I asked her why she does that, and she told me that she does that because if she does that, I will leave, and when I return she will be living. That’s what she said. But, at one time, she did it, and I returned and she was no longer living. I was in Stockholm, and they called me and said she had died. This was just two years ago in August.
She always said special words to me, like a benediction. She spoke to me as if I was her little child. They were words like that. And of course this touched me a lot. “May God give you a long life.” This is the first thing you say to a baby is born. When you are born, you say, “Allah is God, may God make you live.” In fact, it’s not quite the same as a long life. Because if you are a child, you can die very quickly. In Africa, with so many ways to die, so many problems, this is a dangerous moment. So there are these words to say that God has made you live. So she would say this to me, and then lick the hand three times.
So her words inspired me to make this song. And I say, “Mother, these words you have spoken have made me completely crazy. You have made me think a lot, a lot. About life. About the world. About the human situation. About love. About all the feelings I have. Everything in life. It’s so powerful. Your words have given me all of that in my head. These are the things that you say to a baby who has just been born. But I’m old, and you still say these things to me always. These are words that are full of love, very very strong. I know that you love me very much. And I know that one day, life will be finished, but always these words will be very strong. This has made me think a great deal about life. You have asked God to give me a long life, and you have seen after that yourself very much. I am over 40 years old now, and the child of three months can die. I’ve had the chance to live 40 years, so when you say that God should give me a long life, that astonishes me. You say that God should make me rich and happy, when you say things like that, I’m astonished that you continue to want me to have all that. All that!”
Then I speak about the day of the birth of a baby in a Manding household, and especially about the baptism. It happens in the morning. I talk about the atmosphere at the baptism. It’s seven o’clock in the morning, and all the neighbors come to the house. The families come from different neighborhoods all very early in the morning. They shaved the baby’s head. They call that den kun di. Everyone comes for this ceremony, and they all sit in the courtyard. There’s a great atmosphere of compassion, and joy. The baby is inside with its mother. And when you hear a cry from the room, we see your name is Tela. They said that in the ear of the baby. Then someone comes out to tell everyone that the baby’s named Tela. They announce the name, and the marabout performs a benediction.
B.E: And the griots get to work, now that they have a name to sing.
H.K: And they divide up the kola nut. It is a very powerful moment. If you could capture some of that feeling and share it with others, it would be a good thing for everyone in the world to experience. It’s a great human feeling. People find a lot in this experience, a lot of joy, but also sadness. Because they know that someone could die at any time. People are calm. Mostly, it is an experience of great happiness. People laugh a lot. Happily for us, life is lived this way.
B.E: Let’s go on to “Mali Ba”
H.K: “Mali Ba” is “Great Mali.” I compare Mali to a bull who has one horn, like a rhinoceros. There are not two, just one in the middle. It is a bull who has a coat that is yellow like gold. He eats millet. But it is the highest, most expensive quality. Millet is “gnon.” So “sagnon” is the best, most expensive kind. So this bull eats nothing but that. He does not drink the water of the river. You must prepare special water for him, very properly, in order for him to drink it.
B.E: He’s a connoisseur.
H.K: [LAUGHS] And you don’t eat this bull on Tabaski. You take good care of him. You do everything that he needs. He must remain beautiful. Because the bull who has fur like gold is rare. Historians tell us that it was the Peul kings in Masina, especially one called Geladjo Ambodejo and another called Boubou Ardogalo. About these two, I don’t remember much, but one of them really liked beautiful women. He married many wives. These were beautiful people. That’s important. Like the Wodaabe. To be beautiful is very important. They had long hair with gold put it in, so this one who liked women so much, he took all the beautiful women. All of them were for him. This was obligatory. But he gave to each parent a hundred cows, these special cows with a golden pelt. If the great reputation, but he was also someone who could come to your place, take all the cows with the Golden fur. Those are for him. That’s his power. That’s the way it was. And this is how he built his collection, and he gave a hundred for each girl.
So, that’s the history. And why I’m telling you about this bull with one horn and golden fur is that it is like Mali. We say that the bull is very strong, and when he comes it is better to leave. It is better to leave the road because he can kill, and nobody can stop him. So I compare this bull to Mali. I ask the Malian population to think about this bull. And I ask them to take good care of Mali, because it is one country. We must not be divided. In fact, we must work hard to uplift it. It is a little bit political, to say that we must always be watching this bull, and take good care of it.
One interesting thing about the music. We played a rhythm on a brick. I didn’t want the sound of a hi-hat. So we tried different things, but with a brick, it was just right. It was dry. A little sound. We also use the oud in this song. And it’s Dobet Gnahore who plays that. She is excellent. She played this with a rhythm that she improvised. And I take my hat off to her, because she did it just right. It’s very light music, not with many solos.
B.E: We spoke about “Bara.” How about “N’Teri”?
H.K: “N’Teri” means “My Friends.” This is a song that I dedicate to all of my friends, all of my friends that I have met through music, and all of my friends I knew before I played music, and in the entire world. All the people who have welcomed me, who shown me hospitality and kindness, who have made me smile, who have come up to me to shake my hand, or who pass me on the road and invite me to drink tea with them, or who say, “Would you like to come and sit in the shadow of this tree?” People who know all my stories. There are people I’ve known since childhood, since before I was a musician. Long back. There are some friends I have like that who are very loyal to me. They never forget me, and that really touches me.
You know, when you are popular, all the time people are coming towards you, and if you think you are charmed, it’s because they tell you this. They tell you, and then you know. So people say that you please them, it makes you think you are a pleasant person. They are the ones to give you the idea. So when one is popular, we always say, “Watch out, you will have many enemies. Do not think that everyone is your friend.” That’s what people tell you. But there are people who smile at me and tell me that they will never be my enemy. They are not so many, just a few people, about the same age, maybe it’s money. I have more money than them, but we are friends, and they pay very close attention to me. It’s very pure. They’re ready for anything that we might want to do together. They will always agree. And me too, I am ready to do anything that they propose to me. Just like good friends. These are friends since childhood. It is people like that who have really touched me. This feeling is incredibly strong for me. And that stays true. There’s nothing artificial or superficial here. So I dedicate this song to those guys. Now the music on “N’Teri” comes from this other song “Titati.”
B.E: That’s the guitar instrumental at the end of the record.
H.K: Yes. The music in “N’Teri” comes from there. While I was playing a simple melody of “Titati,” I heard the singing melody for “N’Teri.” So I had to find a way to make them go together. So at this point, it was no longer “Titati.” It had changed, and become something else. And then, afterwards, I made another change for the bridge. This did not come from tradition, but I used my ears to stay in the mode of the song. It doesn’t depart from that feeling. If I had a guitar, I would show you what I’m talking about. And at the end I return again to the “Titati” part, and sing with the violin. This was a violinist from Belgium. It’s very beautiful, very peaceful, with a nice balafon solo by Keletigui.
B.E: How about “Massaké”?
H.K: Massaké is the king. I speak about the children. I say they are kings. We protect them and give them everything they want. I speak about a baby, who since it was one year old, everyone pays attention to them. And when given the food he wanted. Everything that he wanted he got. The father gave him everything. He thought his father was his slave. He also thought that his mother was his woman slave, who would give him her milk, and who later would give him money every afternoon to go out and buy things you want it. The little baguettes we eat every morning and the afternoon. Everyone works in the house, and I say that the children are the kings, but I ask them, because they have so much at their disposition, to also be a little bit calm. Because they do lots of other things too, have tantrums, cry, demand what they want. And with all that, they still want more. So I say to them, “Please, children, kings, you are very wise, but now, that’s enough.” So this is a song I made especially for the children. I talk about what children eat in the afternoon, with the image of the street in Bamako, in the neighborhood, the women go out with the grain, preparing this grain for dinner, and the children are just meeting together. They have money, but where do they get the money? At home, it was the mother who gave it to them—or sometimes the father, but usually the mother.
I also compare the children to monkeys. And in the chorus, I had 15 children help me sing the song. And they say that the monkey is beautiful. He likes a lot of things. He also destroys a lot of things. He hits everything he passes. The family of monkeys comes down on the hill to graze in the peanut field. They eat well, but afterwards, they just throw things around. They don’t care. They do what they like. And then they leave and go back to their hill. One day the monkeys came and broke everything of the elders in the village. The elders asked the children to do everything they could to catch the monkeys, because they had annoyed everyone. So the children found a way to trap the monkeys. They used fish fillets. So they trapped the biggest monkey, and all the others ran away. The whole village came, and the child was afraid. It was the biggest fear he had known in his life. Because the trapped monkey was crying and crying. They were beating on sticks, and finally they were able to tie him up. They attached him to a tree, like the Indians used to do.
Some people were saying, “We must break sticks off the tree and hit them with sticks.” And “No, we must throw stones at him.” Then the head of the village came and said, “Be quiet.” And he went to the king monkey and said, “What do you want?” And the monkey said to the old man, “I don’t want anything more. Please pardon me. Neither sticks, nor stones. I won’t do any more harm.” So everyone was astonished and ran away, because monkeys never talk. This monkey seemed very much like a person. So, anyway, this is a story for the children, to show them that we love them, and we give them everything, but when they pass the limit, we will punish them also.
B.E: Beautiful. And you end the album with this instrumental, “Titati.”
H.K: That’s a very old, Manding love song. I’m sure you’ve heard it. In Guinea, and Mali, it’s very popular. It could be a person singing about his lover and trying to show how much he loves. Maybe the lover will return his feeling, and they will be happy together. That’s it, a simple love song.
B.E: Thank you, Habib. You have greatly enriched my feeling for this record. I just want to ask you one more question. The last time we spoke it was about your live album, Foly, and we talked about how songs are transformed for the stage. They have another life when you play them live. They can change quite a bit. You can add new sections, change the arrangements, and so on. Has any of that begun with these songs? Have you been playing any of them in your shows yet?
H.K: No. The songs on this album have not yet been played live. I’m afraid to do that. All that remains to be done. But me with my guitar, I’m in the process of doing that. Because I have to learn to perform these songs. I don’t know everything.
B.E: So this is the beginning of another process in the life of your songs?
H.K: Yes. Absolutely. They will change. They’ve already been changing when I play them on my guitar. The song “Africa,” the way I played it in the studio, and the way I play it now are two very different things. I said “Wow, I played that?” I think it will be like this with a lot of the songs. Then I have other problems with some songs. For example, we did “Africa” with the brass section, directed by Pee Wee Ellis. Maybe, one we’re on stage, we cannot have Pee Wee Ellis. Or maybe we can. That would be something new; we’ve never played a show with a brass section.
B.E: You use female singers on this album, on the first song, “Namania.” That is also new, isn’t it?
H.K: Yes. These are griot women, not studio singers. That was what I wanted. So I searched for young griot singers. For example, the wife of Madou, who plays the tama, she sings. She just released her first CD. Her name is Nba Kouyate. I told her to find three like her, not women who sing with a nice sweet soft voice, but the real griot thing. And on “N’Teri” too, with the violin, we found that we couldn’t use Keletigui for the violin. It was something else. Keletigui is brilliant on the balafon, but we used a violinist from another group… So this song also will have to change for the stage. Then there’s the song “Nta Dima,” with the horns, I don’t know what I’m to do with that. Maybe on the day we introduce the album in Mali, we will have them play with us.
B.E: So they will have to learn your arrangement.
H.K: I don’t know what I’m going to do. I think about this all the time.
B.E: When we spoke about Foly, we also talked about how some of the songs become more driving, more dance oriented, than they were on the record. Something about the demand of the audience. Do you think that will happen to some of these songs?
H.K: I really don’t know. The first song. We rehearsed it quite a bit. I think that will do fine on the stage. But I really don’t know. Because in the studio, a lot of things were played with calabash percussion. I find the calabash to be calmer than the drums. And the sound is very nice, very acoustic. I explicitly demanded that. I really wanted a very acoustic sound on this record. But I have this band, and maybe we can play some of the songs like on the CD, and for others we can bring the drums. Or we can use the calabash in place of the drums. Because on the record, I kept adding things. But when you’re playing live, you can’t add everything. You have to choose. So there’s a lot of work to do. I hope I have the time to stay in Bamako and figure all this out. We really need to do that. This is not something you can’t just think about. You have to sit and play. The band has to rehearse together.
B.E: And then when you get the songs on stage, everything will probably keep changing again, right?
H.K: Yes. That will be very interesting. I hope that it will all go in a good direction.
B.E: So nobody in Bamako has heard this yet?
H.K: No. Nobody. Except for those he came to our rehearsal straight we were rehearsing at the Palais de la Culture. Some people came there and heard a little bit. But other than that, nobody.
B.E: It will be a real debut. Thank you so much for this generous interview.
H.K: Interviews with you are interesting. I feel motivated to speak well. For one thing you can speak French. Also, I know that you understand a lot of things about Manding culture. Also I know that you will pass on these words to many people.
B.E: We’ll try.
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