“It’s my first visit to West Africa, but I’m pretty sure it’s gonna feel like comin’ home,” Eric Bibb sings on his latest, Brothers in Bamako, a collaboration with Malian Habib Koite. It’s a great matchup: Bibb’s warm, buttery, soulful vocals fused with Koite’s lilting instrumentation. The duo met when invited to contribute tracks to ’99’s Mali To Memphis. Although they didn’t record together, the two became friends while working on the project.
This fusion feels seamless. Bibb revisits his signature tune “Needed Time,” trading with Koite who sings his parts in French, with Bibb following with the English translation, both harmonizing on the chorus. It’s so pretty it brings tears to your eyes.
Koite spent a decade in Bamako, Mali’s capitol as a guitar professor at his alma mater, the National Institute of Arts. He demonstrates his fluency on several instruments here, including ukelele and banjo as well as acoustic and electric guitars.
“We Don’t Care” carries on the Bibb legacy of social commentary passed down by his folk singer father Leon. Although the melody is light-fingered, the lyrics dig deep into the flabby sides of uncaring citizens worldwide who remain blissfully unaware of the circumstances surrounding their creature comforts. “We got everything we need, but we still want more,” Bibb sings. “We don’t care, do we?”
“L.A." may be the most un-L.A. sounding ode to that city ever recorded. Since no translation is provided for the lyrics for the Koite composition printed in French, it’s hard to tell if he loathes it or loves it. There’s no mention of smog or traffic, but Koite does blurt out “Tequila makes me happy” in English a couple of times over a lilting guitar.
Dylan’s old folk chestnut “Blowin’ in the Wind” is transformed into a rough hymn with Koite chicken plucking on the banjo behind Bibb’s velvety vocals and a touch of pedal steel weeping discreetly in the background.
The duo also gives a makeover to “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” peeling back its African roots with Koite on banjo and Bibb playing acoustic guitar, sounding like it‘s coming from a back porch in Mali.
No matter what he tackles, Bibb is always worth a listen. This project is one of his best, an amalgam of his warm, folksy soul and the lilting rhythms of Koite’s heritage. The duo will be touring in support of the album early next year. Go see it live and put in your order for more.