I always find it very funny when someone says they really like "African Music" and then become almost insulted when I ask them which country's music they're talking about. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and hope they're only stupid and not being deliberately insulting by implying that a continent filled with more countries, cultures, and peoples than North and South America combined could possibly be represented by one style of music. Still it's hard not to laugh when they become indignant when asked for specifics.
Of course that's being a little unfair as most types of music played in Africa, with the exception of popular genres, aren't specific to one country but to a region of the continent. That's only because the borders of so many countries bear no relation to traditional tribal boundaries. As a result, some people have found they now live across the border from other members of their own tribe. While others, like the nomadic Tuareg, have found that traveling across their territory now involves crossing four or even five borders. Looking at a map of Africa, it's easy to understand why you wouldn't know the location of Guinea-Bissau. The tiny former Portuguese colony is crammed between Senegal to the north, Guinea to the south, Mali to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. It's one of the most impoverished countries in the world as the majority of its people survive through subsistence farming.
Still, like other West African nations, they have their own musical history, and Kimi Djabate, is one of the contemporary links in a chain that extends back in time hundreds of years. Centuries ago his ancestors had been traveling musicians from Mali. The king, of what was then Guinea, loved their songs so much that he invited them to stay and offered them the territory of Tabato, where Djabate was born. Born into a family of Griots – musicians who are keep track of their tribe's history and tell the stories of the people through song – Djabate started playing music when he was three years old. His first instrument, the balafon (a type of xylophone), remains his primary instrument to this day. However as his forthcoming release, Karam July 28, on the Cumbancha label shows, he's expanded his repertoire of instruments to include guitar and various types of percussion.
At the age of nineteen, in 1994, while touring Europe as part of the national musical and dance ensemble of Guinea-Bissau, Djabate decided to settle in Europe and has based himself out of Lisbon in Portugal ever since. Listening to the fifteen tracks on Karam, all of which he wrote, one can hear that while he has stayed attached to his musical roots, he has also reached out to graft on some new branches to create his own sound. While still at home he had been sent off to neighbouring territories to learn some of the regional differences available close at hand, but he also took it upon himself to learn about music that was from even further afield. Since landing in Europe he's continued that musical education and now you can hear traces of everything from Nigerian Afrobeat, blues, jazz, to Cuban being used when appropriate to the material at hand.
Of course like all Griots, first and foremost Djabate is a vocalist. As it was their responsibility to be able to sing a family's or tribe's history, Griots by necessity have voices that make you want to listen to them. However this doesn't mean being loud or overpowering, it means having a voice that draws you into a song. Djabate isn't going to overpower anyone with voice, but there's something about his melodic tone that captivates the ear and holds your attention. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that the majority of the material on Karam isn't sung in English. Yet, in spite of that, you find yourself wanting to try and hang on to every word he sings.
Perhaps it's the subtle power of his music that ensnares the listener. With the balafon and acoustic guitar switching as lead instruments, the overall sound of this record is far less rhythm heavy than one would probably expect. In fact, there are occasions that the music comes close to being too understated, but is saved from being trance or sleep inducing by Djabate's precise playing of the balafon. Unlike a drum the sound of this instrument is very mellow and instead of propelling a song, it moves with it, emphasizing and breaking up the flow like punctuation does a sentence. Grown accustomed to popular music that's pushed forward by a full drum kit supported by electric bass, it takes a while for our ears to get used to the type of interplay of rhythm and melody employed by Djabte's, but once you do you'll find it just as effective as any other style.
Although living, in Europe Djabate's focus remains firmly fixed on Africa. He sings about the social and political realities facing his people including the rights of women, the fight against poverty, and about freedom. The last is particularly important to his homeland as its history has been checkered with civil wars and military coups since their independence in 1963. With one of lowest per capita mean incomes, around seven hundred American dollars per year, and an average life expectancy of around forty-five, Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world. What little infrastructure it had was destroyed during a civil war in 1998-99, and a military coup in 2003 has only increase its instability. As a Griot Djabate tells the story of his people in his music, and right now its not a pretty picture.
This goes a long way towards explaining the subdued tone of this disc. It would be hard to be too exuberant when singing about those topics. Yet even so the music isn't depressing to listen too. While we may not be able to understand the exact words that he's singing, the tone of his voice communicates that he has hope that things can improve. In spite of what I referred to as the subdued tone, there is an infectious quality to the music that gradually encourages you to move to the music. Normally you're not going to want to dance to songs that only bemoan fate, as the music can't help but reflect the spirit of the lyrics, so the fact Djabte's can inspire you to move tells you while things might not be so good right now there's no reason to give up hope for the future.
Kimi Djabate, like so many other West African singers we're hearing today, comes from a long line of singer/storytellers, and he carries on that role with his own music. However, instead of merely speaking for one village, or even one family he speaks for his country and his continent. His use of music from traditions other than his own and his softly insistent voice combine to ensure that while we may not understand what he is saying, we are not only compelled to listen but take away a good sense of what he is talking about with each song. Don't worry if you've never heard of Guinea-Bissau, or know next to nothing about the north-west of Africa, with people like Kimi Djabate around as long as you're willing to listen you'll learn quickly enough.