Many people first heard Malian guitarist and vocalist Habib Koité in Martin Scorsese's recent PBS blues documentary blowout. That's too bad, because Marty too tenuously links American blues to its continental roots via the contemporary West African sounds of Koité and fellow Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Scorsese bundles both musicians together as one point in a mythical lineage from their style to the blues. But one listen to Fôly!, Koité's double-CD collection of live tunes backed by his band Bamada, directly challenges that jive. Koité isn't a purveyor of music that eventually became the blues; he's simply one of Africa's most skilled contemporary pop musicians.
For one thing, his tuning -- which resembles that of West Africa's four-stringed ngoni -- bears none of the blues' lamenting bent notes. But in any event, Fôly! shows how Koité's well-structured material soars in a live setting. He and his ultratight band stretch out on the mostly quick and stealthy material, giving members like elder balafon (Malian xylophone) master Kélétigui Diabate and talking-drummer Mahamadou Koné many short solo passages in which to shine. Koité's ringing chords and luxurious tenor provide a scintillating atmosphere, and they're spotlit wonderfully in duet with Diabate on "Wassiye." Blues, schmues: Koité's biggest hit, "Cigarette Abana" (a stomping version of which closes the album), is an anti-smoking anthem -- not the kind of stuff John Lee Hooker would stomp about. Fôly! isn't the sound of a guy with the blues, or even the proto-blues -- it's the sound of African pop kicking ass worldwide.