Habib Koité: Kharifa

May 19, 2020

Of Lions and Moss

Listening Post 253. Everyone loves a love song, which explains why nobody composed What the World Needs Now is Responsibility Sweet Responsibility. Everyone touts diversity, yet there is Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All time” (*499 in English). If you seek wisdom in entertainment it’s useful to look beyond the market driven universe. A good place to start is with Habib Koité, the Malian singer-songwriter, born into a griot family of 17 siblings. Koité’s music embraces love but he layers it with life. He appreciates rock and folk but blends them with tradition—tuning his guitar to a pentatonic scale and playing on open strings, like the n’goni. He embodies pluralism: Across the 12 songs on Kharifa he sings in four of his nation’s indigenous languages, plus French and English, his repertoire exhibiting a career-long effort—this is his sixth album—to promote unity among sometimes fractious ethnicities. Koité approaches human foibles with a clear eye and a smooth, optimistic voice. In Wara (The Lion), he views the explosive growth and squalor of Bamako, Mali’s capital, as akin to a wild beast (video 1). The contrasting title track (kharifa means “trust”), portrays life as a series of sacred duties—caring for children, neighbors, nation, earth (video 2). The artist’s son, Cheick Tidiane Koité, takes the stage as writer and vocalist in iVazi (Go On), about a boy becoming a man (video 3). In Mandé, Koité the father pays tribute to Mali’s Dogon people in their own language (video 4). And the feline metaphor returns in Symbo (Lion King), comparing Malian leaders from the thirteenth and twentieth centuries (video 5). On the strength of his music Habib Koité has become a giant of African culture, traveling widely and stretching his roots like muscles, strengthening rather than breaking them—like a rolling stone with a rich cover of moss. (Contre-Jour)

Habib Koité: Kharifa
Habib Koité: Vocals, guitar, flute, banjo, clave & bells
Abdoul Wahab Berthé: Bass guitar, backing vocals
Charles Auguste Coulibaly: Keyboards, backing vocals
Issa Koné: Guitar, banjo, backing vocals
Madou Koné: Tamani, tamanba, yabara, bara, backing vocals
Mama Koné: Djembe, calabash, percussions, backing vocals

Cheick Tidiane Koité: Vocals, bass guitar, keyboards
Mbouillé Koité: Backing vocals
Awa Sissoko, Wassa Coulibaly, Koumagna Diabaté: Backing vocals
Cheick Diallo: Flute
Abou Sissoko: N’goni
Toumani Diabaté: Kora
Bamoy Coulibaly: Doun doun
Apolinar Boconon, Omega Atumo, Alexandre Korohounko: Trumpet
Amy Sacko & Mariam Bah: Backing vocals
Amadou Coulibaly: Congas
Sekou Bembeya Diabaté: Hawaiian guitar, acoustic guitar

Related Post. Habib Koité: Soô, Listening Post 60, August 14, 2016

Habib Koité: Soô


Wara / The Lion
Lyrics & Music: Habib Koité

Sung in Bambara (Mali’s most widely spoken language)
From the album notes: The population of Bamako, Mali’s capital, grows day by day, swollen by people from the north and center of the country seeking refuge and security. There are huge traffic jams, and black smoke from car exhausts mixing with the ambient dust. It’s as if there are smoke machines around the lamp posts. In this atmosphere swim unoccupied and rootless youngsters whose motto is “Making do.” I gave a name to this hustle and bustle: Wara.

This Wara environment symbolizes all the evils that afflict the people—poverty, idleness, squalor, disease. Here, life is a struggle every day. A Bambara proverb says, “The living fly off with the winds of the deceased.”

We must face the Lion!


Kharifa / Trust (What We Entrust to You)
Lyrics & Music: Habib Koité

Sung in Khassonké (Habib Koité’s native language)
Like a mission that’s been entrusted to you, a sense of responsibility awakens within: Take care of those for whom you feel responsible. Help and protect through self-sacrifice. We will care for our children who will in their turn take care of us; the sons of the motherland must take care of their piece of earth; neighbors must take care of each other.

Just a glimpse of what human relations are all about.

The Gagny Lah family has always been a hope for the Koité family


iVazi/ Go On
Lyrics & Music: Cheick Tidiane Koité

Sung in Bambara & French
The awakening and hope of a young boy who sees himself becoming a man under the wise guidance of his father and the loving care of his mother. He is now ready to overcome all obstacles.

iVazi is about all those who struggle to get by in life.


Lyrics & Music: Habib Koité

Sung in Dogon
Mandé is a region of Mali stretching from the south of Bamako to beyond the border of Guinea/Conakry. The population of Mandé is mostly Mandéka, Maninka or Malinké. The Dogon people living in the center of Mali on the Cliffs of Badiangara say that they emigrated from Mandé to create the Dogon country on these cliffs. Their nearest neighbors were the people of Macina, the Bozo, the Tuareg.

There was a lot of mixing between these different ethnic groups, who were farmers and livestock herders. The Tuaregs are the “joking cousins” of the Dogons. Marriages between Dogon and Peul [Fula] began in the fifteenth century; that’s why today there are many Peul words in the Dogon dialect.

Mandé, sung in the Dogon language, invites all these fine people under the “Tougouna” (meeting place where people must sit down to talk because the very low ceiling doesn’t allow them to stand), where they join forces to build their common country: Mali.


Symbo / The Lion King
Lyrics & Music: Habib Koité

Sung in Malinké (Maninka)
Storytellers have compared the power of the Emperor of the Mandé to that of the Lion King. Every attempt to betray him failed and he was always victorious in war. For me, Modibo Symbo Keita [modern Mali’s first president] is like the Emperor Soundiata Keita [thirteenth-century founder of the Mali Empire].



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