THE INTERVIEW: Habib Koite
With his unique pentatonic play and rich musical heritage, Habib Koite is one of Africa’s most notable artists. Though steeped in griot traditions, Koite refreshes the scene with his supple singing and unique melange of genres like blues, flamenco, and dassa. With five albums and world tour experience in places as far-flung as Australia and Kazakhstan, Habib Koite is an international staple.
What is your process for writing music? What inspires your work?
I have several ways to proceed. Sometimes I think first of a melody and then I find the words or I want to use a rhythm from a certain ethnic group of my country. I’ll check how I can manage this traditional rhythm played by traditional instruments by finding the best possible way to use those elements with the “modern” instruments we use. It is important to be attentive and to keep the spirit of the tradition. Other times, some words arrive in my mind and I find some music to go with the words. I also find inspiration by playing my guitar and discovering the beginning of a song.
Musically, I’m inspired by the traditional rhythms of my country, from all the different areas, ethnicities. I want to play all the styles. But I need to find how I can put several rhythms together or some instruments together. The latter gives me a great deal of work and research to keep the real identity of the tradition. Regarding the lyrics, I like to speak about the daily life, the family, the human being, the environment…
How do you continue to learn and grow as a musician?
I have the chance to play and to perform all the time everywhere in the world. I always perform in front of a public who wants to hear some good music. That’s a good source of inspiration because they are present to get some pleasure. You are supposed to give to them this pleasure. I also listen to a lot of music.
In an interview, you were quoted as saying, “I’m curious about the world.” What do you mean by that and how does that curiosity play out in your life?
I like to travel, to meet people, to play for different people, meet different cultures, music and try to find the link or some common points we could have together.
How has playing all over the world with a variety of musicians influenced you as a musician and as a person?
Since I was young I listened to a lot of music, blues, rock, and jazz so it was not a big surprise when I began to travel. The best was to have the opportunity to have human contact with the musicians I admired; I was suddenly in a position to meet them on the road. For example, I like the guitar player Jackson Brown and I had the chance to meet him. In fact, I realize how simple it is to meet some great artists; it was just natural and possible since I was on the road.
Are there any particular performances that stick out in your mind as being particularly special? If so, why?
I’ve performed so many concerts. It is difficult to now recall something special, but the most important concert for me, I will never forget, was my first performance in France in 1992: in a small festival in the South of France. A French friend helped me to be there–there was a competition and the winner got the possibility to record two tracks. Between all the French and Spanish bands, I was the only African musician, alone with my guitar. I won the prize which gave me the possibility to come back home with my first tape with two recorded tracks! That was the beginning of my career.
Are there any genres you’re interested in exploring as a result of your travels?
Before I had the opportunity to travel, I listened with such pleasure to Jazz Rock (Pat Metheny, Etc.). I do continue to appreciate this music, but I listen to many other types of music too: the one of my children – teenagers. I listen to discover something new but I don’t feel all those new music’s have any influences on my music.
You’ve played with many people, still yet, are there any musicians you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
Well I don’t know. We would need to meet each other, see what about our feeling, and then we may play together. There isn’t a particular name to answer this question. Collaboration will come from a spark.
With all of your accomplishments, what is the next step for Bamada? What is the next step for you?
Play music, play music again and make some new CDs; that’s the most important.