The 2011 edition of Africa Acoustic has been on tour in March and April. It features Habib Koite and Afel Bocoum of Mali, and Oliver Mtukudzi of Zimbabwe, and five support musicians from their bands. Banning Eyre caught up with the group just before one of their second US concert at the Somerville Theater in Boston. Read Banning’s blog post on that concert. He had a chance to speak with Habib, Oliver and Habib before their soundcheck. Here’s a transcript of the conversation.
Banning Eyre: Why don’t you start by introducing yourself, just in case anyone in Afropop land doesn’t know you.
Habib Koite: My name is Habib Koite. I’m from Mali and actually on tour in the US with a musical project called Acoustic Africa.
B.E.: Acoustic Africa. And this is your second time with this project. You were also on a version with Dobet Gnahoré and Vusi Mahlasela. Tell me about this experience, working with Oliver Mtukudzi and Afel Bocoum.
H.K.: Yes, with this version things connect easily, because first of all the music of Afel is from Mali. I’m from Mali, and even though Afel is from Niafunke, and you know about the great diversity of Malian music… I’m not from Niafunke, I’m from the West, but I’m Malian and I’ve listened to this music for a very long time and I know it, I can understand it. The interesting meeting was the music of Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe. I first heard this music a while ago, some years ago when I met Thomas Mapfumo in Belgium. That was my first time to see a band from Zimbabwe and listen to the music, the songs of the mbira and the harmony… it made me think of some Mandinka music from Mali. There are some common points between some mbira music from Zimbabwe and some Mandinka music… the cycle is sometimes similar. And since this time, some years after I had the opportunity to meet Oliver Mtukudzi in 1997 I think, or 98 in Zimbabwe, in Harare. And again we’ve joined together with the same producer in the US and we’ve toured together some years ago, and now we’re together to make a music project with Acoustic Africa. And things are going very easily.
B.E.: It’s a beautiful collection of artists. Do you get any chance in this show to actually bring together Mande music and Shona music?
H.K.: Yes, that is the wonderful thing we do. Because when we started to rehearse in a small village in Belgium, we just discovered through one song… and everyone said ‘No this is from Mali’, others said ‘Oh, it’s from Zimbabwe’, and the mbira player, Shoko, said, ‘No’….and we built one song through this music.
B.E.: Is it a song I’d know the name of? I mean, if you were in Mali what song would you call it?
H.K.: I cannot tell you a name. The similar point is that one of my songs “Sin Djen Djen” has the same scale, but not the same rhythm. And we just fit it to the rhythm of Zimbabwe and it became something for us, for both countries.
B.E.: One of the reasons I love this particular pairing is because I lived both in Bamako and in Harare, playing with musicians. I would sometimes play songs from West Africa with an mbira player who would just immediately be able to play them. And we had some nice experiences like that, creating mixtures, so I’m really pleased that this is now part of this show.
H.K.: You, Banning, are the best witness of this similarity between Mande music and the music of Zimbabwe.
B.E.: Well, thank you. It has been an obsession of mine for a long time and we have talked about this before,
H.K.: Because you yourself, you know that. It’s great. And actually, since some years when we met Oliver Mtukudzi, I don’t know why but generally we met, everywhere in the festivals… we were always on the same stage. And maybe something happened, because maybe people feel us, that we’re close. And when we listened to the CD, the album of Oliver in our tour bus, all the musicians, especially Keletigui [Diabate], we loved the music too much. Keletigui was the first who asked to hear it again, again, again. And I talked with Oliver. He is a good, a great musician. And he’s had too much experience. He told me the same thing, ‘It’s like Mandinka music’. And now we’re together!
B.E.: Beautiful. So you had to just bring two musicians, right? So who did you bring? How did you make that choice?
H.K.: The the last version of Acoustic Africa, every lead can bring four musicians. So we were twenty of us on the road. This version the organizer said we must be smaller – just one leader and two musicians. It wasn’t an easy choice. I have six musicians in my band. Oliver, I think, too has maybe seven or more than, so it wasn’t easy. But we had many discussions. For example, Afel from Niafunke, I know the band, I know the music. I know my band, and I know my music… so I chose my musicians, and I thought about what they can do in the music of Afel. So they can be with me and be well with Afel too.
B.E.: So who did you bring?
H.K.: Only my drummer [Souleymane Ann], and he plays calabash too. And my bass player, [Abdul Berthe], who plays kamele ngoni too.
B.E.: Abdul. Very good. He’s a very versatile bass player.
H.K.: Yes. We chose them because they can be with me and with Afel too. Because Afel did a tour, and Abdul played the bass for him sometimes in Europe. He knows the songs, first of all. And my calabash player knows some rhythms from Niafunke. Like takamba?…., or the Fulbe rhythm. Souleymane can play that too. So we had to make the choice of my calabash player, or the calabash player of Afel. But if the calabash player of Afel came, then we couldn’t bring the njurkel [one-string lute] player, but we want him, because he has this small instrument that’s very interesting.
B.E.: So Afel brought…
H.K.: Afel brought one guitar and one njurkel..
B.E.: And Oliver, you brought a calabash, and.. Well, who do you have?
O.M: Well, I brought an mbira player and I brought a percussionist, who unfortunately this tour has not allowed.
B.E.: So what is it like when everybody comes together? Is there a time when everybody plays together?
H.K.: We mix everything. The set starts light and becomes bigger at the end. Sometimes we mix…
sometimes Oliver invites someone to join, sometimes I do, or Afel does. Normally we have three songs where we all play altogether.
B.E.: How did you pick the songs from your large repertoire? Which ones did you decide to pick? You have a lot of songs!
H.K.: Nothing was easy, you know. But we cannot choose all the songs… maybe if we had a lot of songs maybe we’d have to play for three hours. But three hours is a lot for the European and American people.
B.E.: We’re very patient actually, you’ll find.
H.K.: The choice wasn’t easy. It depends you know.
B.E.: What are some of your songs that you picked to play?
H.K.: I chose “Takamba” to be close to Afel. And I chose my song with the flute, to bring something flutey in the set. And I chose “Fimani,” the instrumental song off the last album because everyone can make some solo, to bring ambiance onstage for each player. I chose “Wassiye,” this is to give rhythm for the people. This is a popular song. But you must be in the room, at the beginning to the end. To see how we move, and how the songs change. It’s beautiful, I think.
B.E.: I can’t wait, I think so to. I’d love to talk more but I know you guys are going to be needed soon. So Oliver, would you like to come and say a few words?
Oliver Mtukudzi: I am here.
B.E.: Ok beautiful, man. So great to see you again.
O.M.: Yes, great seeing you man. After a long time.
B.E.: Yeah… I think SOB’s a couple of years ago was the last time.
O.M.: Yeah, two years ago.
B.E.: So, let’s start just for any new viewers and the listeners. Introduce yourself.
O.M.: Well, my name is Oliver Mtukudzi, I’m from Zimbabwe. Yes, I’m on tour with Habib Koite and Afel Bokoum.
B.E.: What has this experience has been like for you.
O.M.: It has been very healthy. I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot of things that I didn’t know before. And of course, getting deeper into friendship than ever before. So I think it’s been more profitable to me than them!
B.E.: Well they know each other. I’m sure they’ve profited greatly from knowing you. So what are some of the things that you’ve learned, that have surprised you?
O.M.: It has made me even more proud to be African. Working with them was making me understand that I’m not an African for Zimbabwe, but an African for Africa.
B.E.: That’s beautiful. Habib was talking about this mysterious connection that happens between Shona music and Mande music. Has that also been your experience?
O.M.: Oh yes, but there’s a lot of community in between the two sounds. There’s more to it that makes us feel each other like one. You know? It’s magical, where you find Mali is and where Zimbabwe is.. they’re far apart. It is not something that you can even guess to be uniform. But, we are surprised, like this song that we argued over ‘It’s a Zimbabwean song, no it’s a Malian song, and lah blah’… one person somewhere wrote that song.
B.E.: What song did the Zimbabweans think it was?
O.M.: Well, we have the traditional rhythm of the “Nhemamusas” the “Mahororos”—that kind of thing… only to discover that in Mali there is something like that. You know? I mean, you feel, ‘Oh, we must be one.’
B.E.: That’s beautiful.
O.M.: And now I’d like to comment on how we came to be on this together. It’s like magical from the first time I heard Habib’s music, and we happened to be with the same record company here in the States. And wherever he’s invited, I am also invited. We are always meeting, you know. It’s like something was just tricking us together, to come up with this.
B.E.: That’s great. I can’t wait to hear. What are some of the songs that you picked to bring to this project? You too, you have so many songs.
O.M.: Yes, I have a large catalogue. And it wasn’t easy at all thinking of what to play. But I tried to choose something that has a kind of flavor that is different from what I understand Habib plays. So I was like, ‘Ok, if we have to fuse, let’s fuse two different things into one.’ So I looked for stuff that I thought could be interesting to them, and could be interesting to mix with whatever they choose to bring. I brought ‘Tozeza,’ ‘Neria’ and ‘Manyemwe’…. but it wasn’t an easy choice.
B.E.: No for you, you must have 1000 songs at least.
O.M.: Well, out of sixty albums… that’s a lot to choose from.
O.M.: Ya, since ’75.
B.E.: You’ve long been known as incredibly prolific. So I’m glad to know the tap is still flowing. You know one thing that Mali and Zimbabwe do have in common is that they’re both landlocked countries. They both have rivers but not the ocean. I don’t know, maybe there’s some psychology to that, you know?
O.M.: Yes, true.
B.E.: You mentioned that you were just in Colombia right? Was that with your band?
O.M.: No, in Colombia I was in a duet, with a percussionist. I had to pass through the UK with the whole band. So we were split up on the way coming here.
B.E.: But you’re still living in Harare, playing with the band? What’s the music scene like these days?
O.M.: Well, it’s building up, as always… you know Zimbabwe is full of fun people. It’s getting on. I’m glad that we also have youngsters who are interested in playing the instruments, who are not interested in computer programs and actually want to play. For me, it’s a blessing.
B.E.: Do you think you’re seeing more of that now?
O.M.: Yes, I’m seeing a lot of youngsters who don’t want to see a computer, they just want to play. They want the opportunity to play the instrument. So it’s a legacy being created, which is a good thing. Most countries are losing out – all youngsters are just on the computer, and just loop and put vocals on it and that’s it.
B.E.: Wow, that’s great. So you’re probably working on your 61st album now, right?
O.M.: Well we have already recorded an album, we haven’t released it yet but I’ll be releasing it when I go back home.
B.E.: So any other special thoughts about this tour? It’s just beginning, isn’t it?
O.M.: Yes, it’s the beginning. But it’s like, the first leg was in Europe. And by the time we were like, ‘Yes, this is it,’ it was towards the end of the tour. Now we’re beginning again, but we’re beginning at a higher level that what we did in Europe because we already know the music and we know what to expect and… well the first show was just… well we just liked it.
B.E.: I can’t wait to see it. So you were in Europe in the fall, in October, right? How many shows were there?
O.M.: Ten, or twelve.
B.E.: Ok, a good number of shows. That’s fantastic. Now I’m going to have a word with Afel before you all get called for sound check.
B.E.: Afel, welcome. What’s your experience of this project, this collaboration?
Afel Bocoum: It’s been quite a broad experience. I’ve met some excellent people.. getting to grips with the music was difficult. The music is different from what I knew, and I found it hard to understand but I got on top of it and I tried to do something else with it.
B.E.: Your life can be a little complicated as you have another profession that’s separate from your music. And it’s always been a task of yours to balance the two lives. Is it hard for example to do a tour like this that takes several months, away from Timbuktu and Niafunké??
A.B.: Yes and no. It is difficult but at the same time, I have to do it to help my family survive. Sometimes I don’t have a choice. If I had the means, I’d have been able to stay in my little town and eat fresh fish with rice. But none of that will exist if I don’t take this path. So I try as I can.
B.E.: You’ve known Habib Koite and his music for a long time now. You’ve collaborated together in the past, right??
A.B.: Yes, we’ve worked together in the past. And I’ve known of his music. I worked closely with him for a project called Desert Blues. And I met him a few times on the international stage too.
B.E.: The music of Zimbabwe as played by Oliver, has that been a new discovery for you??
A.B.: Yes, partly a discovery, but it’s not totally new to me, you know? I’d compare it to Mandinka music, which to me is music of the south of Mali. So I’m not totally lost in that music, you know? I’m familiar with it in terms of the rhythm. Yes it’s quite different in terms of melody, but I find my way. That’s how it is.
B.E.: And are you happy with the mix that you’ve created together??
A.B.: Oh I’m very happy. I’ve lived another music. You always have a thirst to know others. This is a great interest for a musician. And the world of music will end up with this – a fusion. That’s for sure, you know? Because to create a music that is purely African, you need specialities: melody for the Malians, rhythm for the Burkinabes or the Sengalese.. what do I know? Fusion is necessary in Africa to produce a music that is worthy of the name ‘African’. And I know that will come. Already it’s starting, right? But I hope it will lead us down a path towards a happy destination. That’s what I would say.
B.E.: I asked Habib and Oliver how they chose certain songs for this project. And you too have many, many songs. What tracks did you choose to bring to this project?
A.B.: I chose “Diadié,” from the last album, Tabital Pulaaku. It’s a song that talks about women and children. For in the eyes of the west, we don’t love our women and our children. We love them dearly. We take care of them very well, only sometimes we don’t have the means for their education. To look after a family, you need to have certain means; financial means or psychological means. There are many who can take care of a family worthy of being called a family. So these women and children, we love them very much, what we’re missing is this side – to be able to support them in terms of education, in terms of health… and it’s for such reasons that you come on tour.
B.E.: Now, last time we met it was when you had come over with Lobi Traoré, Damon Albarn and all for a special show at Lincoln Center. We keep hoping to have a tour with you and your full band, but we’re getting closer.?
A.B.: Yes, we’re getting there. You’ve got to keep going. It’s important to discover others. These days some people prefer praise singing, or rap, all sorts of things. I’m happy for them, and we, for
our part, have to search out who we are. We boast of having the traditional African music, and on the other hand there’s the new generation that’s aiming towards a different system. So in the end, there are less jobs. Some people prefer these other styles, and if you’re not of a certain type, you risk not being able to tour.
B.E.: Right now the music in the north of Mali and Niger, and that region, is getting lots of attention. There are the new artists, the Festival in the Desert which is gaining in reputation, and many groups who have come over like the American that toured with Khaira Arby recently, and many other examples. For me, when I think of Alkibar, your group, in terms of true Sonrai folklore, it’s the best. Because it’s so deep. You’re like on the level of classical music. I listen to all these groups, I like them a lot, I like them all. It’s a great phenomenon at the moment, the discovery of American blues and rock, looking at the connections with the music of the desert, of Mali, etc. But, for me, the strength of your group is the depth of its understanding of the all the details and nuances of folklore. Do you think that’s true??
A.B.: Yes, in some way. We came to music rather late in the day. This is music for moonlight. It was music to be played during baptisms and circumcisions. And then one day we decided we wanted to export this music as well, because music was just in the south, only in the south. We had music, but music to export, that has to be prepared. And really, it was thanks to Ali [Farka Toure], this gave us the taste for exporting our music. And since then, we are all searching for the best way to do that. Well, we’re already on track, we’re getting there. I don’t know how it’s going to end, but I hope that it will go well.
B.E.: But it seems to me that there’s been a change in the last five years or so…?
A.B.: Yes, I’ve definitely sensed that too.
B.E.: Well I truly hope that Alkibar will come and tour in full force.
A.B.: ‘Crossed fingers!’ [in English]
B.E.: Absolutely. So, is there anything else that you wanted to talk about, anything you wanted to say to the listeners of Afropop about this project?
A.B.: Yes, of course. Afropop is our ‘business’, all of us. Each time we’re there, we get the chance to see the elements of Afropop that we know so well. We ask them to help us once more, because you know that you’re the professors of world music. And I would like you to help us out on this project. Without you all, the music would have stopped no matter where you are – in Mali, Senegal.. – whether here or in Europe. Really, your help is appreciated from around the world. I send you greetings.
B.E.: Very kind. Oh, and one last question. How was this year’s Festival in the Desert??
A.B.: I have no idea because I didn’t get the chance to go this year. I had jobs to do so I couldn’t attend the festival at all. But I think that it went well.
B.E.: I think it did. I understand the problem of having other jobs.. I remember when I arrived in Bamako with Bela Fleck in 2005, and it took a lot of work to get you down south to record.
A.B.: Yes, exactly.
B.E.: It’s complicated, eh? But we’re very happy that you’ve arrived here in Boston. Is this your first time in Boston??
A.B.: I don’t even know myself! When I toured with Ali we visited many towns…
B.E.: Oh yes, of course, you were here with Ali. How could I forget?
A.B.: You just arrive in a town, you don’t know anything about it. So now, I’ve started to memorize the places, the faces, the spot we’re playing in… but I still have a long way to go!
B.E.: Right, it’s serious now.
A.B.: Yes, it’s serious. So now, what I really have to do still is play my own music. Not to say that I’d want to commercialize my music too much but I would like the help of others so I can move forward, and work with my music.
B.E.: I’m sure that will happen. I’m confident. And Afropop will be here to help.?
A.B.: It’s up to me to thank you. Thank you very much.