A new album is out called “Brothers in Bamako”. The brothers are Malian music veteran Habib Koite and African-American folk musician Eric Bibb. The album cover speaks volumes about the music and their relationship: sharing a bench outside of Habib’s home in Bamako, Habib picks a banjo guitar and Eric strums a big acoustic guitar.
Their promotional tour of the new acoustic album brought them to Artisphere Performing Arts Center just outside of Washington D.C. only one week after the promotional tour of the acoustic string duo, Vincent Segal and Ballake Sissoko — the subject of my last blog post. I was in fact a little concerned that the two shows back to back would get boring for me and my readers and radio listeners. To my happy surprise, and yours too I’m sure, as you watch and listen in the clips of the concert, the interview and concert were thrilling.
We met during sound check and Habib and I had a few nice moments to catch up on our kids and families. We have known each other since 1989 when I used to come and sing in the local nightclubs and bars in Bamako on occasional weekend getaways from village life as a Peace Corps volunteer. Habib was one of the main Bamako bands that was popular in those days but he’d not quite made it yet. He had such a presence on stage, all of the volunteers loved him and today the world does too. Eric Bibb was an unknown to me until this evening. His quiet reserve during dress rehearsal made we wonder what my interview would bring. As the clip below reveals, his articulate and thought provoking responses reveals a deep, deep guy who believes in the spiritual nature of the world. When the lights go up on that stage, Eric ignites with an organic energy that is profound and exciting.
In the dressing room, we had a conversation about how they met, how they feel they are connected as brothers, and what pieces they think their audiences like the most. Habib gave me his thoughts on the situation in Mali today as well.
The clip includes one musical excerpt from the concert “Mami Wata.”
At 2:00 into the interview, Habib mentions that Malian hunter’s harp music has been a big influence on his playing style. At this point in the interview, he moves his fingers around in a vertical position and you may have wondered what he was talking about. To help explain this, I dug up some old footage I took back in 2003 of hunters playing their harps and dancing during the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington D.C. Hunters in Mali are a highly revered, voluntary association of men across ethnicity.
They used to hunt big game in older times, but today that aspect of their association is more symbolic. They are keepers of tradition and arcane knowledge in things related to the forest and the spiritual life believed to thrive there. They also enforce law and order in the ways of traditional life, and music is a big part of their identity. They play the harp (called Donson N’goni in Bambara), the metal scraper, and they dance… boy do they dance…
Here is my edit of Eric and Habib’s closing number to which they received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Near the end of this song, you’ll notice a random hand to the right side of the shot tossing dollar bills on the stage. For those of you familiar with West African music practice, no explanation is needed. For those unfamiliar, audience members who are touched by the music routinely take to the stage and shower bills, jewelry, even car keys I’m told, on to the musicians and singers to show their appreciation. With this last piece one could say that Eric and Habib brought out the brotherly love in Washington — Malian style.