- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

“Both of us grew up in families and communities where music was a big part of celebrations, funerals, family reunions, church, all that kind of thing. It’s just part of the culture. It’s something you grow up with,” says Carla Gover, half of the contemporary Appalachian singer-songwriter duo called Zoe Speaks.

For Miss Gover and her duo partner and husband, Mitch Barrett, performing was a natural part of growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky.

“I started singing in church with my mother, and then we were invited to sing a lot of funerals,” Mr. Barrett says. “And I would see the effect it would have on people at these funerals. It was really powerful.”

The music that Zoe Speaks will perform Wednesday at the Focus Inn in Rockville has a gentle power that comes from the simple, honest style that has grown over generations in the Southern mountains.

But that is only one of the traditions Miss Gover and Mr. Mitchell embrace.

“I think we move all the time toward more originals,” Miss Gover says from the couple’s Eastern Kentucky mountain home. “We always throw a few traditional things in to pay homage to our roots and kind of center our music and give it a sense of place.

“But we love to create. We love to express things in a way that sometimes a traditional song won’t allow you to do particularly with everything that’s going on in the world. I mean, we’re folk singers; we have to put in our two cents’ worth.”

What they put in is worth a lot more. Their original songs owe a lot in style to great country-folk singers Woody Guthrie, John Prine and Gillian Welch. Their lyrics are straightforward, contemporary and positive, without being preachy or arrogant.

“Our lifestyle definitely shows up in our songs,” Mr. Mitchell says. “Our values and the way we’re trying to raise our children, and just living this very different lifestyle to most people around us here in the mountains.”

“It’s just trying to wake up from the sleep that a lot of America seems to be suffering from,” Miss Gover continues. “This kind of sleepwalking through our existence without a true appreciation for all the advantages we have. We try to be conscious to that and hopefully just try to wake people up a little bit, including ourselves.”

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For singer-guitarist Habib Koite of Mali in West Africa, understanding and conversing in English takes a great deal of effort. Combining Malian rhythms and scales with European and American musical styles and singing in multiple Malian dialects is much easier. He has done this so well that he may be the biggest pop star in West Africa.

He and his band, Bamada, will bring a lush, intricate music with layers of intoxicating, danceable rhythms; passionate vocals; and underlying joy to the Barns at Wolf Trap on Tuesday night.

When Mr. Koite was growing up, he was surrounded by many generations of music. But he was headed for a career as an engineer until an uncle insisted that he enroll at the Malian National Institute of Arts. There he studied classical guitar and European classical music, but the curriculum also included traditional Malian musical styles and scales.

Mr. Koite was intrigued by the broad variety of Malian music. Ethnic groups and regions of his large country, which is about three times the size of California, have their own distinct music.

“In Africa, a big part of modern musicians think about to play some European or American music, reggae or hip-hop,” Mr. Koite says. “But I decide to use my experience of world music in Malian music, because in Mali, we have a lot of different music.”

Mr. Koite says he likes the challenge of making different styles work together. A talented guitar player and arranger, he studies the structure of songs from all over his home country and incorporates what he learns into his own music.

Initially, this was a bold step for a Malian musician. When Mr. Koite began playing in Malian nightclubs, musicians generally played only the music from the village where they were born.

“I play all, and I try the new experience with each music because I’m not come from this village,” Mr. Koite says. “I take the music, and I listen and listen a lot and take essential element and mix.”

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