By Meron Abraha,
CINEMAS Roma and Asmara have been super busy accommodating guests and shows in connection with the weeklong festivities marking the 24th anniversary of Eritrean Independence Day.
This year’s festivities saw prominent African artists from the Western, Southern and Northern corners of Africa converging in the East African country for its 24th year of independence.
Indeed, South African performers and Sudanese artists were able to enjoy the music of Malian superstar, while all of them together have been savoring the essence of Eritrean Independence Day celebrations.
Audiences have been flowing to the cinema halls almost all week long but definitely not in the same number as that of this past Thursday. No surprise there: playing that night was Malian superstar Habib Koité.
Alliance Française of Asmara’s gift to Eritrea this year, Habib Koité is no guest to Eritreans’ ears because he has already been to Asmara 18 years ago (to be exact). And to the expectation of music fans, Habib delivered a sensational concert at Cinema Roma on Thursday 21 May 2015.
Habib’s relaxed singing style and moody performance, along with his band, Bamada, entertained the packed audience for over two hours.
Born in 1958 to musical parents, from whom he learned instrumentation just by watching and listening, Habib Koité didn’t reach stardom until the age of 33, when he won first prize at a French music festival.
With the prize money, he recorded two songs in Mali, one of which was Cigarette Abana. After that, he won a major French prize, which eventually led to concerts in Europe and release of albums.
Habib is known primarily for his unique approach to playing the guitar and has been lauded for bringing together the diverse musical traditions and variations of Mali with his music.
“Usually, Malian musicians play only their own ethnic music, but me, I go everywhere. My job is to take all these traditions and to make something with them, to use them in my music,” Habib was quoted as saying once.
His evening repertoire featured songs like “Cigarette Abana” (No more cigarettes – a song about a man who tries a cigarette but gets sick and says, ‘No more cigarettes’), one of his best-known songs and that was first recorded in 1991.
Back in 1997, I had attended his performance and I distinctly remember that song… which is why I was surprised to find myself singing along “Abana, Abana, Abana…” Or maybe it was because the song is often played on television that I picked up the tune over time. Nonetheless, the feeling was mutual with quite a number of people who attended this recent concert.
His other songs included Dêmê, a song that advocates the serious issue of people helping each other and living together in peace and harmony. His track Soô, which is also the name of one of his albums, talks about the essence of home as the place that brings everything together and how everything one has at home can’t be found anywhere else.
When I sneaked backstage after the concert for a brief tête-à-tête with the artist, we talked about his last visit and the things he remembered.
“Apart from the word ‘Yekenyeley,’ I also remember the spicy food,” Habib said. He also noted that that the “audience tonight was more enthusiastic than last time,” stressing on the often remarked passiveness of Eritrean audiences.
“But I feel honored to be part of your country’s celebrations. It’s good to be in your beautiful city with its favorable climate and hospitable people,” he went on saying, stressing on the cleanliness of the streets of Asmara as opposed to the littered streets of his home country.
“So are we going to have to wait another 18 years to see you perform again?” I ventured my last question, a remark that Ms. Cecile Antonietti, the Director of the Alliance Française of Asmara, had said before introducing Habib to the stage.
“You don’t have to! I’ll definitely be back very soon,” Habib Koité said, in a very optimistic spirit. Rushing out of the cinema hall, I could see a number of people waiting to take photos with the artist and have him sign one of his posters or a copy of his CDs.
Habib Koité is scheduled to appear at an open air concert today near the City Park for the Eritrean Independence Day Eve bash. Habib Koité’s concert was sponsored by the Alliance Française, with the collaboration of the National Holidays Coordinating Committee.