I don’t often get the opportunity to see music live—my tastes are far too eccentric for the sheltered, conservative Memphis music scene, awash in country music, vapid “singer-songwriters”, rock fossils, and glam hip-hop (if modern Kanye West is the Poison of hip-hop, I dread to hear what the Nirvana will be), and a pale shadow of what it was sixty, forty, or even twenty years ago. It was to my great surprise, then, that my father told me about an upcoming appearance by Senegalese-born Malian musician Habib Koité and his band Bamada at the Germantown Performing Arts Center. Now, Habib Koité isn’t a particularly challenging listen—his music is pretty pleasant, consonant, and white people-friendly, relying primarily on Western tonality and smooth, non-threatening chords, but in Memphis even a milquetoast representative of Mali’s resurgent musical scene might as well be musical ambrosia.
GPAC is a small concert hall but has excellent acoustics; it’s certainly miles better than Minglewood Hall, where I saw Megadeth in a plain concrete room with a bunch of folding chairs in it. We bought our tickets late, so the floor seats towards the front were all spoken for and we got first-row gallery seats instead, which meant we would get most of the sound of the concert from the PA system (more on that later). Rather than stand around looking like a couple of schmucks in the lobby while everyone around us socialized, we went immediately upstairs to our seats in the auditorium. The ushers tore our tickets and issued us booklets with the concert hall’s schedule, which were the most upper-middle-class bourgeois things I had ever seen: gray-bearded white jazz dinosaurs, ballet lessons, ads for Land Rovers, a PBS affiliate (“the Mid-South’s NPR”, because the only way to make NPR worse would be to put it in the Bible Belt), and investment advice. Before Koité or his ensemble got onstage, a GPAC executive slowly, stammeringly rattled off the various companies and rich people who give money to GPAC, an almost indescribable bore that went on for no more than four minutes (probably a good two of which consisted of the syllable “uh”) but felt like ten. But eventually, the guy ran out of sponsors to genuflect to and mercifully left the stage so the actual concert could begin.
As neither of us are big enough fans of Koité to buy albums and follow his band, we were surprised to discover that the band’s balafon player was absent (in fact, he died a few years ago) and was replaced by a keyboardist, who also provided imitations of other traditional African instruments (flutes, mostly) and the usual shimmering synth pads inherited from the watered-down jazz fusion the African music is hybridized with. The synthesized imitations were expensive-sounding enough to be acceptable, but not half as good as the real instruments, and the synth pads were a wash of pretty but ultimately useless noise, like Lyle Mays on Valium. The string section consisted of three players: Koité himself on acoustic guitar, a second guitarist who occasionally swapped his guitar for what looked like a banjo with a guitar-like construction and timbre, and a bassist who also played the kamale ngoni, a large lute using a gourd as its resonator—I’ve always been impressed at the dexterity and rich intonation African ngoni players (whether the more famous jeli ngoni or other kinds) achieve with instruments that lack fingerboards, frets, and even tuning pegs, with the strings just being tied down to the plain wooden stick that forms the neck. Rounding out the band was percussion consisting of one guy with a calabash (a half gourd that produces sounds similar to a drum kit by striking it with different parts of the hand in different places), a djembe drum, and large conga-like freestanding hand drums, and another with a talking drum. There is no definitive lineup available for the Bamada band that I could find on the internet, so I do not know for certain the names of any of the band members.
Though the acoustics of the hall were pretty good, the mix through the PA system left much to be desired. African instruments are incredibly diverse, but one thing they all have in common is that they are not very loud, and in the gallery the sound quality depends almost entirely on the quality of the soundboard mix. The amplification on the percussion was way overdone and too boomy, with lots of uncontrolled bass and low midrange swamping the natural tone of the big hand drums and calabash—the hand drums sounded almost like timbales and bass strokes (hit with the heel of the hand) on the calabash sounded like the bass drum on an ‘80s Phil Collins album. The guitars and banjo were all but inaudible and while the bass could be heard clearly, its tone was muddy and lacked definition. The talking drum and kamale ngoni sounded the most like themselves at this concert, and the talking drummer’s performance was the most energetic out of the whole band, keeping the momentum up even when the rest of the band was dragging its feet.
The music, mostly drawn from Koité’s new album So’o, which focuses a bit (but not too much) more on Malian music and the culture of Mali than his previous works, was usually pretty but never quite managed to be moving. One of the things that makes West African music so interesting is how its rhythmic elements have a great deal in common with the popular music of the West (having largely inspired said music), but the melodic side of the music dispenses with Western tonality and its usual accoutrements—major and minor scales, chord progressions, arpeggios, cadences, and the rest, and relies on entirely different scales and melodic logics. African rhythms are in abundance in Koité’s music, but African melodies and composition are not—the songs played that night were all standard jazz and pop forms based on chord changes or verse/chorus pop songwriting. Anyone with a decent understanding of jazz music can predict what the music is going to do before it does it. Compared to artists more steeped in African traditions like Baba Cissoko and Oumou Sangaré, Habib Koité’s music feels watered down and dumbed down to sell albums to the sort of people who frequent suburban concert halls and listen to “the NPR of the Mid-South”, which is more of an indictment of the audience than the musicians.
Koité has a soothing, laid-back voice that’s smooth and refined but doesn’t have a whole lot of force behind it, like a Malian Paul Simon or David Crosby. His English is pretty laborious, and unfortunately he decided to exercise it with a lot of rambling, slow-moving stage banter—at one point he addressed a Francophone audience member in French and it was immediately apparent how much more fluent and natural his speech was in French. Worse, he even sang two songs back to back entirely in English after a particularly long and directionless bit of banter—the first was a nonsense song, apparently improvised on the spot, with doggerel lyrics, and the second was the atrocious jangly pop ballad “Need You” off So’o, an obvious attempt at a hit single, the album’s only song fully in English, and something an average rock band could have thrown together in a matter of hours—the lyrics were terrible, the melodies made awkward by Koité’s poor English, the chord progression insipid, and we were glad when it was over and they went back to playing their normal fare. My favorites from the set were the second track, which I never knew the name of (the set list is not available anywhere) and the closer (before the encore medley of older material, anyway) “L.A.”, which also had a poppy chorus but one that was actually pleasantly catchy rather than irritatingly so (also tequila is a much more enjoyable subject to sing your English refrain about than the “creepy possessive boyfriend” theme ballads like “Need You” inevitably use).
Overall, I enjoyed this concert quite a bit, despite the annoying English-and-balladry segment in the middle of the set, though it could have stood to be a bit longer—with the stage banter excised, the entire set was barely over an hour. The hall looked good, sounded good, and had comfortable seats, the band played well and made no obvious mistakes, and I wasn’t sitting at home reading news articles about the latest thing that the Republicans are attempting to ruin. If you are curious about the music that gave rise to almost every form of modern popular music, Habib Koité and Bamada put on a quite good show and are an excellent introduction to West African music that won’t throw you into the deep end by dispensing with Western forms entirely. Do yourself a favor and order your tickets early so you can get a seat in the pit and hear the instruments’ natural acoustic sounds rather than rely on the PA system to interpret the sound for you—this is largely acoustic music and even a much better mix than what we got won’t beat hearing the actual instruments right there in front of you. It’s just a shame nobody speaks French in this country.