Eric Bibb and Habib Koité, Musical Instrument Museum, 2/11/13

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Eric Bibb and Habib Koité @ Musical Instrument Museum|2/11/13

The distance between Memphis, Tennessee, and Bamako, Mali, West Africa, is geographically large, but last night that distance in musical terms was no more than the three feet separating Eric Bibb and Habib Koité on the Musical Instrument Museum stage.

Hearing the intertwined guitar styles from these two parts of the world side by side, it became obvious that historical and cultural link between musical these idioms is great. The two styles blended, becoming one. That was the fascinating appeal of this concert, how the sounds--Koité's deep, poly-rhythmic patterns and Bibb's traditional blues shuffle, even when both musicians played different songs at the same time--melded together into an ebullient, joyous, moving flow.

The show opened with each performer providing a solo song introduction. Bibb began with a traditional walking blues number; Koité picked away at slow, hypnotic Malian melody with a desert feel, accompanied by percussionist Mamadou Koné. The trio then performed the first of many songs from their collaborative 2012 album, Brothers in Bamako.

"We Don't Care" was a light-hearted blues romp with Bibb on lead vocals, enhanced by Koité's deeply rhythmic playing. "Foro Bana" followed--a sweeping, moving number by Koité full of aggressive rhythmic patterns and complex overlays. Koité explained that the song--title translated to "The Fields are Finished" -- detailed his dismay at having to wait a year and three days to marry when the fields of crops requested as dowry by the uncle were already grown. The song captured that frustrated emotion exquisitely.

The set list alternated back and forth with each performer taking the lead on the songs they wrote. The musical lineage of each was clear: The base of Bibb's songs shifted from folk to gospel to blues, but always the style was distinctly American. Koité's typically began with his multi-rhythmic finger style and built from there. But again, the amazing thing was how the two styles--no matter where the song began or what language the lyrics followed--always merged harmoniously.

Koné's masterful percussion was essential for holding it all together. Sitting behind the guitarists, Koné's main instrument was the calabash--a gourd--which he deftly played the way a rock drummer plays a full kit. The calabash was accented by bongos, wrist cymbals (like tambourines) and other surprises.

Both artists enlivened the proceedings with tales about how the songs were written. Bibb was somewhat matter-of-fact about his explanations while Koité, who hails from a family of Malian Khassonké griots, or storytellers, was just that, eliciting plenty of laughs for his lengthier ramblings. Explaining "L.A.," Koité discussed the time when he, Bibb, and others desperately searched for late night food in the City of Angels. A kind soul served them, but also provided a drink inspirational to the songs mariachi-like bridge and chorus: "Tequila make me happy/ L.A. tequila time."

That was one small part of the fun that extended the entire night. Not just for the audience, but the performers as well. Koité could barely hold still, constantly shifting in his hard-back chair, while Bibb's smile never faded as he too moved back and forth in his seat. Koné, for his part, never dropped his infectious smile.

Perhaps one of the strongest examples musical merging was on the song "Tombouctou," about the Northern Mali city of Timbuktu. Bibb played a rollicking blues shuffle while Koité dug deep into his West African blues roots. Both artists sang, one completing the sentences of the other for a mesmerizing interplay that was as remarkable as it was beautiful.

Both artists also took turns on the banjo, with wildly different results. Though originally an African instrument, the banjo is played much differently in America, most commonly with a syncopated rhythm. This was how Bibb used it, with slight modification, for a version of "Goin' Down The Road Feelin' Bad." Koité, on the other hand, slowly picked the banjo. In his hands all the dark edge and brooding emotion of the instrument was unleashed. "I've never heard the banjo like that before," the woman sitting next to me declared. Chances are, few others in the near-full house had, either.

In fact, chances are the few had ever heard music of this nature before. It was just two master musicians playing, but two believers in the power of music finding a common ground and generating something refreshingly unique and original.

"Music is universal," Koité explained. "It doesn't matter what country you are from, we can connect with music."

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: Habib Koité and Eric Bibb

Personal Bias: Fan of both artists, but particularly Koité.

Overheard: On the way to the lobby: "That was amazing. I'm going to buy all their CDs."

Random Notebook Dump: "Deep, slow almost mournful polyrhythms battles strident calypso blues as the calabash launches percussive accentuations."

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