Back in the early twentieth century when the unions were first trying to organize workers in the United States to stand up for their rights and fight for safe working conditions and the novel 40 hour work week, they had the problem of trying to educate people of various backgrounds and levels of literacy.
They found that music allowed them to communicate to large numbers of people at one time and they didn't have to worry about whether or not someone could read to be given information.
People like Joe Hill and others would either compose original songs that spelled out the issues or, even better, take old songs whose tunes people were familiar with and give them new lyrics more appropriate to their circumstances and situation. If you've got 20,000 miners standing around in the freezing cold looking to be inspired, it's far better to have some guy get up and sing "Solidarity Forever" then have them listen to some person droning on for five minutes on the same subject.
Not only is it more entertaining to listen to music then speeches, it's more likely listeners will retain the message. Even better is if a song has a chorus that people can sing along with, helping to reinforce the feeling that they were a large number of people speaking with one voice. Physically speaking it's a long way from the silver mines and coal fields of Colorado in the early 1900's to 21st century Mali in Africa, but there's a connection in what's being done with music by some of today's African performers.
Habib Koite has just released his first studio album in six years and this new Cumbancha Records release, Afriki (Africa) hearkens back to those songs from an earlier century as he is using this album to try and awaken people to the challenges facing Africa. This isn't a new role for the musicians of Mali to assume, as it has long been part of their culture to be the storytellers and history keepers of their people, it's not much of a stretch to add teaching to the list.
As this is music for the people of Mali that we have been invited to listen in on, the lyrics are in Bambana, one of the languages of that country. Even though things will sometimes get lost in translation, you can get a good idea of what he is singing about through the English version of the lyrics that's provided in the accompanying booklet.
The song "Africa" is an example of this where he lists all the stereotypes that the world sees when the look at the continent: corrupt politicians, countries dependant on handouts, and endless cycles of war, poverty, famine, and genocide. Koite says they have the choice of either waiting for someone to help them or to help themselves, and that young Africans should stay at home and work toward that goal of independence rather then leaving the continent behind to better themselves as individuals.
Of course, he doesn't just sing about politics, he sings some beautiful love songs as well. The one I liked especially was "Fimani" (The Little Black One), a song from a young woman's point of view. It's not about any young man in particular, but about the fact that she wants a young man. It doesn't matter his wealth or his color are unimportant, but he be the source of her hope. Spelt out baldly like that it doesn't really sound like much, but it's not the words themselves that are important – it's the feeling of yearning that's expressed by the song that makes it so powerful.
The other love song that was particularly moving was the one he wrote to commemorate the passing of his mother. Instead of any false sentimentality, he writes about the wishes a mother has for her child, and about learning that for a mother, best intentions are the one blessing she has at her disposal. No matter how much she may want to control the world and make her child's life as perfect as possible the reality is she's as much a subject of circumstances as anybody else and can only hope for the best.
As in the previous song it's not so much what's being said, it's what the song is communicating that is important. A good deal of this comes down to elements aside from the lyrics; the music and Habib's voice have their role to play as well. Unlike some other performers I've heard who try to incorporate elements of Western Pop music with African it doesn't sound like a collision of cultures.
He has taken the time and effort to find those elements that are common to both and blend the music at those points. Instead of all of a sudden having wild guitar solos or electronics added in just for the sake of adding them in, Habib has managed to create his own style of music that is based on elements of both his Malian tradition and Western pop. It's almost like he started from zero and carefully built something that's unique to him that makes full use of his talents.
What's really nice is that it is flexible enough that he is able to utilize some very specific Malian traditional instruments in one song without them sounding out of place. On the song, "Nta Dima" (I Will Not Give Her To You) he makes use of antelope horns that give a marvelous sound to this piece about a father telling marriage arrangers that he's not going to give his daughter up to just anyone.
Using traditional instruments is more then just a novelty item, it's part of his overall intent in keeping alive traditional elements of African music while not allowing it to become a museum piece. Part of that is also singing in Bambana, the primary language of the people of Mali, instead of either English or French. Of course, with Habib's voice it wouldn't matter if he was singing in Pig Latin, he would still be one of the most expressive singers I've heard in a long time.
He uses his voice like another instrument in the band, not just as the means for delivering the message of the lyrics. In these songs, inflection seems to be very important, as he is attempting to communicate ideas of pride and independence to his African listeners and letting non-Africans know about the pride Africans feel for their countries. Moreover, even without our help, they are going to make it. In fact, if we could leave them a little more alone, that would be even better.
At times he cajoles, and other times he praises, in his attempts to rally the various people of different countries and tribes to unite for the common purpose of bringing their continent back from the brink of catastrophe. He has millions of people he is trying to reach, who speak a multitude of languages. For that reason, like the union organizers 100 years ago, he keeps his message as direct as possible but never simplistic.
Habib Koite is a magnificent performer who through his music and his own sense of purpose is doing his best to bring about a pan-African revival. Of course, he knows that he won't be able to do this on his own – but that doesn't seem to stop him from trying.