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Photos by Michel Debock
From the moment they first met, acclaimed guitarists Eric Bibb and Habib Koité knew that someday they’d come together to merge their culturally rooted styles of guitar playing and create an album that explored the differences and commonalities of their respective regions. The only thing stopping them was their hectic touring schedules and the fact that they live in entirely different parts of the world. Showing that kindred spirits care not of geography, Koité from Mali, Africa, and Bibb from Helsinki, Finland, decided to seize the opportunity in 2012 and develop the album they had aspired to create—Brothers in Bamako.
Blending their collective influences of blues, folk, gospel, and world music, the duo reveals their admiration for one another on the album, and their compatibility is illustrated through Bibb’s rhythmic fingerpicking, Koité’s melodic nylon-string lines, and the combined power of their vocals.
“Eric is truly a great guitar player,” says Koité. ”His playing is beautiful and really clear and his voice is in perfect harmony with it. His way of playing a bass line and high line at the same time is close to rhythms played in some areas of Mali.”
Their independent flavors make for an interesting duo, and each player was able to channel a heartfelt depth and fresh energy into traditional blues and folk-anchored material on Brothers in Bamako.
“Habib uses different techniques that add a lot of color to everything,” says Bibb. “He plays a lot of lead lines and does the soloing while I handle the harmonies on the songs. He also has a vast knowledge of his country’s music and he has absorbed styles that are from different regions close to his own. His palette is huge and everything he plays is soulful.”
It was a chance meeting that brought the two players together in 1999 when they were both invited to California to work on Mali to Memphis, a cross-cultural project from the world-music label Putumayo. This marked the first time the two had ever had the opportunity to play together on one stage.
“Right away we directly felt a connection,” says Koité. “During the promo tour, we made some short in-store performances where we played some tracks together quite easily. Our playing is very similar and it was natural for me to play Eric’s blues of Mississippi and Eric seemed really comfortable playing Mandingue rhythms.”
Mississippi Delta blues player Eric Bibb (right) naturally picked up on the rhythms of Habib Koité’s (left) West African music, and vice versa.
An opportunity presented itself for the pair to travel to Brussels, where they spent a week in a hotel room writing songs, playing each other’s music, and sharing stories from their lives. The result of these sessions turned into Brothers in Bamako, a 13-song album featuring new material, selections from their own solo work, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and the classic blues “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.”
“This album wasn’t really a big ambitious musicology exercise, it was more of finding the connection within our playing,” says Bibb. “[Habib] is deep into his culture’s music and I am into mine. He studied classical guitar like I did earlier on, and we have a lot of similar influences. We really just wanted to show two guitarists who live far apart from each other coming together to make a record.”
The tracks “On My Way to Bamako,” “Tomboucto,” and “We Don’t Care” meld Koité’s African-inspired soloing with Bibb’s blues-based chops in a way that gives the illusion that they’ve been playing together for decades.
“I like to use a technique where my thumb plays the bass notes and my other fingers do the rest of the work in a Travis picking sort of way, though I’m not a puritan at all,” says Bibb. “Habib has this amazing pull-off technique where he’ll take a line and he’ll pull-off and do these fast little runs that break up the consecutive notes. I think the two work perfectly together.”
While the players grew up thousands of miles away from each other, their paths in music are oddly in line. Bibb was born in New York where his father Leon was a popular singer in the folk scene. After picking up classical guitar at age 7 and getting some sound advice from a young Bob Dylan (“Keep it simple and forget all the fancy stuff ”), Bibb moved from Paris to London to Stockholm to Finland where he established himself as a respected singer/ songwriter and sideman.
Habib Koité (left) and Eric Bibb work out some arrangements, Koité with his Taylor T5 and Bibb with his custom Fylde acoustic built by luther Roger Bucknall.
“Everywhere I’ve lived I’ve been fortunate to always find great musicians to play with and learn from,” Bibb says. “The actual music of the place I’m living has a big influence on me. There are wonderful hybrids of folk music and jazz that have inspired me from all over the world.”
Koité was also born to musical parents and spent his early days playing at the Bamako National Institute of Arts, where he too studied classical music. He began writing his own material, forming bands, teaching the children of his community, and has played in support of musicians spanning the globe, including such American performers as Bonnie Raitt. “Mali is a country with such a richness of music and rhythms that I have a strong desire to play with people from all cultures to share it with them,” says Koité.
The duo enjoyed writing and performing together so much that they’ve already planned a followup album and tour for the future. In the meantime, there is no shortage of projects or tours that demand their attention as they head back to their homelands.
“There’s a certain thrill to being in the zone and being able to be on the receiving end of a really inspiring song,” says Bibb. “It has to do with your own will, but also you have to know that inspiration strikes when it wants to. We’ll always be ready.”