Monday, February 17, 2014

African Valentine: the Modern Griot

Last Friday, Valentine's Day, I felt shot right through the heart by the end of my interview on air with music phenomenon Habib Koite for our weekly radio show "It's Hot in Here" (IHIH) on WCBN FM, 88.3 Ann Arbor (catch the interview and the stone cold february grooves at  His words of hope, and his sense of the work that is required to restore peace and prosperity in his country, Mali, were as moving as the soulful, intricately rhythmic music from his new album, SoĆ“, from which he will be performing at the Ark Tuesday night (doors open at 7pm, details here: Habib Koite - The modern griot).

Dorothea in the field
What, you may ask, is a griot? Griots are a bit like the troubadours of medieval European courts. They are composers and praise singers, but also keepers and recounters of details about the past, revisers of political narratives, weavers of historical meaning. My friend Dorthea Schultz, an anthropolgist in Cologne, Germany, has written wonderful books about griots, contemporary media, and islam in Mali (www. Habib confirmed what she has taught me; Griots were often cared for--housed, nourished, protected and celebrated--by nobility in Mali, by the great families with significant wealth. But that tradition is dynamic, and lives into today.

"So," I said, "if you are a modern griot without nobility, who cares for you?" He laughed as he answered me, after thinking for a moment, and cited his audiences all over the world, from Norway to Michigan, buying tickets and turning out to hear him sing and play.  He spoke about the warmth and spontaneity that came from recording this work, about home place, and harmony, and a feeling of belonging, from the comfort of his own home. He noted this move was partly a response to the growing expense of producing albums. But it was also his response to changes in his lineup of musicians, in his own life, and his focus on how home comes to be, and the work it takes to make peace at every level, from households to communities to states, like Mali.

Habib at the Hague
Recall that in 2012 Mali lost control of its three largest northern cities, Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu, in a broader region known as Azarwad. This wresting of power from the Malian state occured through a fragile alliance between the Natioanl Movement for the Liberation of Ansarwad (or NMLA, a group largely oriented around securing rights and status for Mali's marginalized Tuareg populations)  and insurgent islamist forces (backed by Ansar Dine and a number of other small islamist groups). That alliance eroded as islamist forces  imposed strict sharia law. This allowed the Malian state, supported by both French and African Union troops, to regain control of the region. International media flocked to the area to interview Malian women, again allowed into public areas without covering their heads and bodies. However, the internal issues surrounding religious and environmental differences amont Tuareg and various other Malians have not been fully resolved, and fighting continues despite French troop reductions and withdrawals.

From left, IHIH founders Sara Cwiek, Hugh Stimson, and Jennifer Johnson
Just before Friday's discussion with Habib, we dipped into the WCBN
archive from Hot in Here's first season, 2008. It was haunting to hear
my own voice, expertly guided by SNRE alumna and radio professional
Sara Cwiek, now reporting on Detroit for Michigan radio. She led me through a discussion about natural resource conflict and social violence in central Africa. To hear Habib talking last Friday, things have only gotten more challenging in that part of the world, where social and sectarian violence surge like horrible symptoms of festering conflicts over land, water, and other resources in these parts of Africa at present. This socio-environmental malady compromises states
that were already struggling as containers for diverse, prosperous, peaceful communities. As Habib put it, "our country's flag, the flag of Mali, has been throw into the mud. It will require every person's hands, all working together, to lift it out and make it proud again."

He listened with empathetic sadness as I spoke of related violence unfolding at present in sites where I have worked in Central African Republic (CAR). We both know that similar situations such as that in Darfur, Sudan, have ceased to draw so much international attention and student activism on campuses like UM, but they have not ceased to simmer, and to cause suffering. Habib's music is both a balm and an urgent call for engagement on these questions. You can learn more about the conflict in CAR here. You can learn more about Habib's music on his website

Better yet, be his nobility. Come out to the Ark on Tuesday night, and celebrate the beautiful sides of the human spirit: fingers dancing on strings, bodies dancing and voices lifting, together, despite the darkness.