Ami Koita @ King’s Place

When one speaks of legendary female Mandinka singers who hail from Mali, only one name comes to mind, that of Ami Koita. Born into a Jali family in which music was an accepted form of expression Ms Koita’s ancestral roots extend back via two griot families – Koita (her father’s side) and Kamissoko (her mother’s bloodline). Having toured extensively with the National Instrumental Ensemble of Mali, which she joined in 1969, the grandmother of Griot has subsequently released sixteen albums since her debut release in 1976.

On 30 October 2014, Kings Place, London, played host to this Malian icon as part of the London International Festival Of Exploratory Music (LIFEM). Prior to Ms Koita taking to the stage, we were treated to short set by London-based kora player and Outerglobe recording artist Guinean griot Mosi Conde, who has been diligently spreading his own African rhythms and flavours across London and the UK for several years and it was good and fitting that he should have his moment in the spotlight on this auspicious occasion. Mosi did a short but engaging set of four songs; the final song being a poignant musical comment about the Ebola virus and his fellow African brothers and sisters.

And so to the main show. After a brief introductory tune from the support band which also included Mosi Conde on Djembe and Kora, Ami Koita sauntered into view entering stage right, and curtsied respectfully. The audience gave the Malian a warm and enthusiastic reception , given her iconic status within African music. Ami’s first tune ‘Kaira’ translates as happiness. Ms Koita had not come for money or for gold, but she came for the love of the music and the public. For her this is happiness. Never Judge people by what others people say; Judge people for who they are.

The simple but relaxing intro to the tune came courtesy of the three musicians on stage, Moh Kouvate (guitar), Mory Sissoko (Kamelan Ngoni) and Mosi Conde (djembe). Once Ms Koita took to the microphone and sung the opening lyrics of ‘Kaira’, her distinctive honey -toned vocal which has melted hearts , stimulated minds and pleased ears for over four decades became fully apparent. From the outset it was clear that Ami Koita is not only a supreme vocalist, but also a master storyteller. Although singing in her native Griot Bambara, her very conscious and pronounced hand and arm gestures relayed to the onlookers the intent and poignancy behind her words.

Prior to the next song, Outerglobe CEO Debbie Golt enlightened the crowd as to the fact that this was Ami Koita’s first visit to London since 1991, twenty-three years ago, in which Debbie herself had helped come to fruition. The third offering from Ms Koita was a classic recording from yesteryear, Diarabi-Yafa (Love – Forgiveness). Performed here live at Kings Place, the song truly took on a whole new life and energy. As the backing vocalists, Fili Kouyate and Papa Gedeon Diarra began singing the catchy chorus line, Ami immediately initiated audience participation by clapping her hands above her head. The willing punters did not need a second invitation and were soon clapping rhythmically in time with the music. Our storyteller par excellence proceeded to tell the story whilst walking, and if not walking Swaying back and forth on the stage.

The hypnotic groove continued including a mini solo midway through from Mory Sissoko on his cricket bat shaped, but exquisitely sounding instruments, the Kamelan Ngoni. After seven or so minutes, the tempo markedly changed to a much more jaunty pace and the audience’s fervent handclapping mirrored the increased tempo. Sensing their willingness to participate Madame Koita subtly motioned to the backing singers to cease singing and pointed her microphone towards the audience who quickly caught on that she wanted them to sing the chorus of ‘Yafa,’ uniting performer and punter even further.

Following her call and response with experiment with the audience and now truly feeling the vibe showed off some of her traditional Malian dance moves and was joined swiftly on stage by a backing singer/dancer Papa Gedeon Diarra. Together they both got on the good foot, which stimulated the audience to sing the chorus even more forcefully and passionately, prompting a very impressed and broadly smiling Ms Koita to complement them, “Tres Bien! Very good!”

Prior to performing ‘Simba’ we were informed by Debbie Golt as to the background behind the song, “A woman having difficulty bearing a child can pray to ‘Simba’. If the woman has a girl it’s called Nayouma and boy, Famoro.” Apparently this is a tradition in Kirina “the village of Ami’s mother”. As the song flowed it was again punctuated with more dynamic dance moves from backing singer and dancer Papa Gedeon Diarra. But it was a long-standing female friend who Amy summoned from the crowd to join in some truly exhilarating dance steps, mirroring one another to a tee. Having got her groove on with both Ami and Papa, the lady adorned in a pink dashiki was escorted from the stage, but not before maxing out her moment in the spotlight by treating us all to a final bootilicious shimmy.

The deeply emotive ‘Djingo Karile’ (Family)relays the aftermath following the death of a household head. It is like a broken door, whereby anything bad can now enter and destroy family. This can create internal turmoil amongst the remaining family members, oftentimes resulting in greed and jealousy. From her body language and facial expressions alone, Ms Koita managed to relay effectively the poignancy of the song.

The final track in the main set was Dougu, paying homage to the heroes of yesteryear, in particular and elder statesman who originated from the village of Segou. The distinct and pleasing sounds of Mosi Cond’s African kora married beautifully with that of Mory Sissoko’s Kamelan Ngoni and Moh Kouvate’s guitar was the perfect accompaniment for Ami Koita’s Songbird-esque vocals as she commanded the stage like the diva she. Meanwhile behind her background vocalist and Fili Kouyate and Papa Gedeon Diarra performed extremely energetic and visual bird dance behind her. At the end of the song Ms Koita bowed gently three times towards the audience before turning, acknowledging her band, and gracefully leaving stage right from whence she entered to sustained applause.

The African Queen swiftly returned for a much-anticipated encore, but the band already playing the feel good rhythms of ‘Daka’ (Destiny), with a roomful of Ami Koita devotees already clapping along metronomically awaiting to be orchestrated. They got their wish when after two minutes Ami whispered into Mosi Conde’s ear who immediately after receiving his aunties request scuttled from behind his Djembe drum instructing the whole audience to rise to their feet and dance freely. No second invitation was needed as numerous members of the audience either join the ensemble onstage voluntary or were invited up to the stage personally to celebrate this wonderful music and exhibit their own authentic African dance moves.

As she had promised in an interview in the lead up to this concert, Ami Koita gave herself fully and completely, mind, body and soul in order to entertain her loyal and knowledgeable UK fan base, for whom many seeing and hearing the legendary Ami Koita performing live and in the flesh was the realisation of a long-awaited dream. Ami classy performance will leave an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of all those in attendance at King’s Place, London on 30 October 30th 2014. I truly hope Ms Koita does not leave it another twenty-three years before gracing us with her ‘Malian Magic’ once again.

Just on one final note: Juwon has a solo concert at The Vortex on Tuesday 23rd December and Mosi is next playing out with his band at Hootananny Brixton on Sunday 24th January 2015.

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Michael J Edwards

Astral Travelling Since 1993