Southern Detour 

Two international acts with American influences make rare Nashville appearances

Americans are used to hearing their music come back to them in interesting ways from far-off lands. But West Africa’s Habib Koité and Australia’s The Waifs—both making rare appearances in Nashville in the coming week—reveal how differently stateside influences can be incorporated into something distinctive and personal.
by Michael McCall

Americans are used to hearing their music come back to them in interesting ways from far-off lands. But West Africa’s Habib Koité and Australia’s The Waifs—both making rare appearances in Nashville in the coming week—reveal how differently stateside influences can be incorporated into something distinctive and personal.

Koité and his band Bamada create sweetly melodic African pop that draws on his native Malian traditions in its percolating rhythms and the use of flute, hunter’s horn and balafon (an African wooden xylophone). Their strongly traditional sound comes through on the gem “Batoumambe” from their most recent album, Afriki, which was released in North America in September 2007. But songs such as “Wari,” with its dreamy airiness, show how much Koité has been influenced by American singer-songwriters, both in his laid-back voice, his narrative lyrics and his melodic song construction.

The Malian guitarist is considered his country’s biggest pop star, yet his fame in America is only beginning to spread. He’s made a few notable strides through the usual means of gaining pop-culture recognition these days: He sang a duet with Bonnie Raitt on her most recent album, performed on Late Night With David Letterman and received glowing write-ups in Entertainment Weekly, People, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair—all rare treats for an African singer in these narrow-focus days of entertainment journalism.

Koité can run into trouble from African music purists, who fault him for his Western influences. Afriki was recorded on three continents, including North America, where the Malian star incorporated horn arrangements by R&B great Pee Wee Ellis, a longtime member of James Brown’s band. His guitar work has an unmistakable Southern blues influence, as well as flamenco touches from Spain, although he’s most clearly connected to Malian folk sounds.

His tenor voice also has the mellow purity of someone like Paul Simon or James Taylor, rather than the dramatic, roof-raising shouts of a fellow Malian star like Salif Keita. While storytelling is a long-held practice for Malian performers, Koité moves beyond spiritual songs and generally uplifting material—which are his country’s usual custom—to write about oppression and about specific incidents drawn from his daily life and concerns.

But Koité’s Western influences are not a move toward the crass commercialism—instead, he simply sounds like a musician open to new sounds and blending what he learns into the music he grew up loving. Koité’s expert acoustic guitar work forms the center of his songs, and his ringing style remains tastefully musical no matter how fleet-fingered or intricate his six-string runs.

Still, the singer and instrumentalist comes from a long line of African griots, the most traditional of native musicians, so his critics see him as turning away from folk traditions, much like the way Bob Dylan was once slammed for shifting from the American folk-music scene. Koité dismisses such criticism, even striking back by naming his album Afriki, the Malian word for Africa. That would be like Dylan having given Highway 61 Revisited the name American Folk Music instead.

His music, however, is anything but confrontational. The beautiful “Nteri,” which means “my friend,” graciously embraces all those around the world who have shown him kindness and generosity. In “N’ba,” he offers a tender tribute to his late mother, and in “Massaké,” he pokes fun at how Westerners—and some Africans—spoil their children by bowing to their every wish and demand as if they were royalty.

Most ironic, for someone who stirs such controversy, are Koité’s repeated calls for African unity. He sings encouragingly of educated Africans who stay and work to improve their own communities and countries instead of migrating to Europe and America, while other songs praise the African landscape and call for others to help save its environment rather than sacrifice it to progress or war.

But none of the debates over Koité’s music will mean much to Nashville audiences. What will matter is the splendor of Koité’s guitar, his charismatic tenor voice and the intoxicating effect of his talented African backing band. This is Koité and Bamada’s first concert in Nashville, and for world-music fans, there’s nothing controversial about the chance to see a band of this caliber—especially world-class balabon player Kélétigui Diabaté—in a setting as intimate as The Belcourt.

Like Koité, The Waifs are overwhelmingly popular in their native land, but still swimming upstream in America. But unlike Koité, they face no controversy back home for how lovingly they embrace American sounds. Folk traditions don’t carry the same weight in Australia as they do with a Malian artist like Koité, and the band members are freer to explore and head off in any direction they desire.

The Waifs include two sisters, Vikki and Donna Simpson, who play guitar and sing, with Vikki adding bluesy harmonica. They’re joined by Josh Cunningham, who, like the sisters, shares vocal and songwriting credits. Drawing on blues, country, early rock and new-wave pop, and presenting it all with a cool sophistication that carries plenty of heat, the trio’s new SunDirtWater is a stripped-down, roots-rock gem on the order of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand. Although no one would mistake the two records, they both emphasize the sensual, mystical side of old-school American music, yet manage to keep everything mature and smart.

The album has strong local ties, too: The Waifs recorded the songs in Nashville with Compass Records’ co-owner Garry West, who gives the album a seductive clarity. They brought their own rhythm section, bassist Ben Franz and drummer Dave MacDonald, then added a few Music City ringers in organist Reese Wynans, steel guitarist Dan Dugmore and clarinetist Jeff Coffin.

The trio arrived in Nashville after taking a two-year break. Their fifth album, 2003’s Up All Night, had gone triple-platinum back home and earned them an opening slot on a Bob Dylan tour in America. The break found them nesting into marriages and parenthood, with the Simpson sisters staying with husbands in Colorado and Minnesota. By the time they reunited in Nashville, they felt restored and ready—and came toting a backlog of strong songs that made SunDirtWater their most focused and fully realized collection.

Their Nashville ties undoubtedly led to a rare detour South. The Waifs’ only appearances in the region are a Belcourt concert following two days of performances at the Merlefest music gathering in North Carolina. Remaining U.S. concerts are on the East Coast and in the West. Considering how many of their influences originated in the South, and that they made the best album of their career only blocks from The Belcourt, they should arrive in town ready to honor an area that’s so much a part of what they’ve created.


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