Last night, Habib Koité and Bamada kicked off the Twin Cities Pan African Festival, a six-day feast of music, dance, film, and visual art organized by the Diverse Emerging Music Organization (DEMO) to “celebrate the African diaspora and Twin Cities’ African community.”
The Malian band drew an all-ages—but predominantly white—crowd to the Cedar Cultural Center, which is usually dark in July and August but has turned the lights on for the event. (However, they did not turn on the AC, if they have any—the thermostat on the wall said 85 degrees when the concert ended around 10 p.m.)
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the hall was that there was a narrow fringe of chairs trimming the walls, far from the stage. As more people arrived and found chairs stacked in the corners, they created more rows—until the announcement was made that the floor would be needed for dancing and they might want to move. It turned out the predication was right—the band was hotter than the room, propelling the evening with a driving and mesmerizing groove that is at once regional and worldly and had the packed floor moving.
Koité, who leads the band with vocals and guitar and an occasional recorder, is surrounded by five other musicians who play a blend of Western and Malian instruments: guitar, bass, violin, and a drum set were paired with a wooden xylophone called a balafón, a kora (a lute with a bowed neck and a gourd and cowskin resonator), a n’goni (an oblong wooden lute), and some talking drums.
Koité’s guitar playing was occasionally decorated with the light, ornamental turns of phrase common to Islamic musical styles, and his singing was sometimes earthy, sometimes nasal, and sometimes percussive and scatlike.
Their music has a dominant pop feel, and a secondary “ethnic” sound. Because African music had such an influence on the American folk and rock traditions, I found myself pondering chicken-and-egg questions about what I was hearing.
The melodic and rhythmic thoughts were short—anywhere from four beats to four bars—and ranged from simple to complex, and then repeated with little or no modification for the duration of the song. The tunes settle into a groove and stay there, their interest coming from the interplay of the layers laid down, and from virtuosic improvisational solos. The result was mesmerizing. As a listener (or dancer), you can follow or respond to any number of musical thoughts or combinations thereof.
There is also a conversational aspect to their music, coming from an almost gamelike call-and-response; Koité would challenge a band member to imitate a complex melody or play beyond their instrument’s range. (He played this game with the audience, too, but wisely kept it to simpler phrases.)
On vocals, Koité had these conversations with the percussionist, whose talking drum tucked under his armpit responded not only rhythmically but melodically note for note. He seemed to be the audience favorite, and had a charisma on stage that was impossible to take my eyes off—the level of physicality and intricacy of his drumming and the mystery of how he coaxed the different sounds and pitches from his instrument was fascinating.
The audience was a big part of the entertainment, too, as the band brought people up on stage one at a time to dance, the drums egging them on. Moves and grooves were coming out of the unlikeliest of people on the dance floor, as well. “You can tell who has taken African dance classes and who hasn’t,” my friend noticed. Regardless of ability, the music seemed to infect everyone with pure, unstoppable enjoyment, and the happy crowd coaxed a few encores from the band.