Willie Reviews Nahawa Doumbia’s “La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol 1”

Willie Reviews Nahawa Doumbia’s “La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol 1”

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Awesome Tapes From Africa’s reissue of Wassoulou singer Nahawa Doumbia’s first recording reintroduces us to her and presents an intimate version of Mali’s wildly popular genre. Here’s RPM’s review:

Before Nahawa Doumbia was a hit and a star of the Wassoulou genre in Mali, she was a singer who happened to gain the attention of traveling officials from Radio Mali. Looking back, Doumbia says “I was so young and my voice was light and joyful.” Indeed, it leaps easily and often on La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol 1. Eager to sing and doing so with ease, it’s easy to see why she would go on to gain such a following.

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What we get on the record, originally released in 1982, is a picture of Doumbia’s raw talent and lively spirit. These days, she’s a symbol of her country and a headliner at festivals.  If you’ve been following Awesome Tapes From Africa’s releases thus far, you may have heard La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol 3, an album that features a later version of Doumbia’s style both in orchestration and complexity. What we get now by going back in time is an answer to the questions of origin. The building blocks of Wassoulou music appear subtly in these duets between her and her guitar accompanist (and later husband) N’Gou Bagayoko. The ambiance of the recording emphasises live collaboration and the need to get the sound out in its current form. Guitar work in the pentatonic scale implies the rhythms of a full band. Her voice does the same, and the two play joyfully together.

Backing up a bit, it’s helpful to see Doumbia’s place within the Mali scene historically, at the time of recording, and today. The Wasulu region of the country (conventionally spelled as such to differentiate it from the musical genre) is known for both its fertile land and natural abundance as well as its more metaphorically abundant musicality from which popular forms of music spread outward. The traditional role of bard (jeliw) in the region is passed down through generations, but their foil was and is their popular counterparts who sing at an amateur level—for fun, or for any number of personal reasons. Within this framework, the popular and woman-dominated Wassoulou genre emerged and flourished. I can’t find a whole lot of translations for these lyrics, but by all accounts they address male ownership of property and gender imbalance. It’s the sort of pop music that might be more accurately called populist music.

Nahawa Doumbia, photo via Awesome Tapes From Africa

So it’s odd, even before her explosion onto the scene, to find Doumbia singing in a much quieter space. It doesn’t feel like pop music, but her equal partnership with the guitar feels meaningful. Lead singing is a traditional role for women, and men most often play drums, flutes, and harps in any sort of ensemble. For Doumbia to collaborate so seamlessly and effectively with the guitar, itself an outsider to the genre, shows great confidence and willingness to innovate. The call-and-response aspect of Wassoulou is integral, but here the guitar calmly follows her vocal line. She responds to herself and to the guitar and then to herself again. On “Sokono Woulouni,” the guitar switches modes in every phrase from accompaniment to faithful listener. The chords supporting her vocal passages morph into deft runs just as fluttering and energetic as her own.

There is much I cannot say for sure about this album due to the language barrier, and I suspect a whole lot is contained behind it, but the music is still an invigorating listen for audiences outside of Mali. We get a sense of its power and easy appeal among younger Malians. These songs are remarkably far away from their traditional roots and eager to go further. What’s better in a reissue than feeling the foreshadowing of a future that has arrived?

Score: A government-certified success!

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