When Malian singer-guitarist Habib KoitÃ's second album, Ma Ya, was released seven years ago in North America, he was quickly hailed as an important new figure in global music. Among other things, KoitÃ ' who plays the Wisconsin Union Theater on Sunday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m. ' was called a strong blues player, a description he still finds a little odd.
'We play our songs,' he says over the phone from a noisy hotel lobby in Texas. 'The name 'blues' other people use because they feel our music is like that. When people don't know the original name of the music, they can think it's like blues. But to me it is some music that comes from Africa with an African name, an ethnic name.'
Although he has played rock and pop, ethnic styles have always been important to KoitÃ, who hails from the northwestern Wassalou region of the country and is a descendant of griots. He first became known for a pair of singles he recorded in the early '90s, but his fame grew when he began recording albums that explored a variety of Mali's many traditional musical styles.
While other well-known Malian stars like the late guitarist Ali Farka TourÃ and the singer Salif Keita played music with traditional roots, KoitÃ's pan-Mali focus was a creative breakthrough. Not only did he shine a light on the country's diverse musical landscape, but he also emphasized that Mali, a very large country that's home to a number of language groups, could and should be viewed as a unity of many traditions. As he puts it, 'Each language is a micro-culture, and in Mali each micro-culture has a small wall. But I want to break this wall and bring everybody together around me.'
At the Union Theater, KoitÃ will be part of a tour called 'Acoustic Africa.' He'll play solo as well as with a backing band that includes five members of his regular group Bamada. He'll also play several tunes with the tour's other featured performers: South African icon Vusi Mahlasela and the charismatic young Ivorian singer Dobet GnahorÃ. Because the show has an acoustic focus, he says, some tunes aren't really for dancing.
On the other hand, KoitÃ promises that the audience will have plenty of opportunities to get an African groove on. 'People have reacted very well,' he says, describing the tour's earlier dates. 'At the end they often get up and go to the side and dance.'
'Storyscapes' on stage
Wendy Schneider of Coney Island Studio reports that her company Sparkle Dog will take one of its kids-oriented 'Storyscapes' to the stage. On Jan. 28, Sparkle Dog will present Ernest Thompson's 'The Itsy Bitsy Pizza Parlor' as part of the annual Celebrating Youth! event at Monona Terrace. It was one of the first pieces Schneider committed to tape using the combination of narration, original music and sound effects that embodies her 'Storyscape' concept.
Schneider has a lot of experience presenting 'Storyscapes' to children. Since forming Sparkle Dog in 2003, she's brought the concept into a number of area schools and homes and received good response from both parents and educators. She sees the stage production as an extension of that experience.
'This is a great opportunity for us to get our feet wet,' she says. 'We can see what options we have in terms of developing an outreach program for the company and thinking about ways to do future work.'
Schneider isn't venturing into new waters all alone. She's enlisted the help of director Evy Gildrie-Voyles, a poetry slam veteran who has extensive experience teaching improvisational theater, acting and creative writing. Together they'll run a series of workshops and rehearsals that will get a cast of local kids ready for the live show. The first workshop is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 4, at 4229 Argosy Ct., Building C. It's open to children ages 6 to 10 and begins at 10 a.m.