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Is it possible to know nothing about Mali's hereditary caste system and still love its guitar music? You wouldn't think so, judging from the press on Habib Koité, the "Jimi Hendrix of West Africa," whose swirl of acoustic dance pop actually sounds less like "Little Wing" than like the hypnotic bird-chirp pattern-language of Phillip Glass. You'll read that Koité is a griot (or jeli), which means his family has a tradition of praise singing and storytelling that was his to absorb before he had the words to object.
But genealogy isn't destiny in modern Mali: Koité had his parents' blessing for a career in engineering before his uncle persuaded him to study classical music at the National Institute of Arts in Bamako. If he hadn't become a phenomenal success in the West--Bonnie Raitt has famously said she'd drink his sweat--Koité would probably still be teaching at that school.
"I never decided to do music professionally," he says now, speaking over the phone from a club in Bamako. "Because I don't know when music is finally professional. In Africa, playing professionally is like a dream, because we don't have a real [industry] for music, like in Europe or the U.S. I give food to my family with music now, but I'm not sure if I'm professional or not."
Koité was born in one bustling railroad town (Thiès, Senegal, in 1958) and raised in another (Kayes, Mali), so foreign and nontraditional influences were long ingrained. (He remembers both Pink Floyd cassettes and a concert by Guinea's Bembeya Jazz National with fondness.) Bamada, the band Koité brings with him to the Cedar Cultural Center on Sunday, began as a conscious experiment in 1988: How do you meld the various rural Malian traditions with the "danssa" beat of urban Bamako? The group lifted its name from a term for the city's citizenry that loosely translates as "in the mouth of the crocodile," and adapted the style of the kora (a West African harp) to silk-string guitar and balofon (a sort of xylophone).
But even as Koité spurns synthesizers, his distinctly Malian project feels both international and pop. Last year's Fôly! Live Around the World (World Village) jostles like arena rock even as it luxuriates in texture: The addictive "Cigarette Abana"--"The Cigarette Is Finished"--was the group's first West African hit a decade ago in part because of its poppy structure. (The first time Koité realized he was famous, he says, was when parents on the street yelled that their kids wouldn't stop singing that damn anti-smoking song.)
In a way, Koité's Mali suggests the cosmopolitanism to come from a Muslim world ruled by elections, unfair trade, and the breathing room provided by peace. One of Koité's recent gigs offered a glimpse of this future: On the second weekend of January, he played the Festival in the Desert, a remote weekend concert held in the Sahara, north of Timbuktu. Thousands arrived by camelback and four-wheeler to use the sand dunes and moon as a natural stadium, and hear African music from across the continents. For a moment, at least, I imagine that the center of the world felt like the center of the world.