Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section
(last revision 02/11/99)

NUMBER: 028.301

The female singers of Mali have a well-deserved reputation for excellence. For some time, Mande jeli moussolou (feminine plural form of the word "jeli") dominated the Malian musical scene, but, more recently, the Wasulu singers have gained national and, in some cases, international prestige. This CD documents this musical preeminence by presenting mostly unreleased recordings by  four Malian Divas: Kandia Kouyaté, Mah Damba, Sali Sidibe, and Oumou Sangaré. It also illustrates the stylistic differences between the Mande (Kouyaté, Damba) and Wasulu (Sidibe and Oumou Sangaré) styles of music. "The Divas from Mali" should be not confused with "Divas of Mali" (Shanachie 64078) which a very good recording, but this one is much better.

One of the strong points of this CD is that all the tracks feature
traditional acoustic instrumentation. I mention that because the great singers of Mali are often recorded with modern arrangements with programmed drums and synths both to meet the evolving tastes of the national population as well as to succeed on the international market (many of the songs on the Shanachie CD mentioned above are examples of this trend). While such recordings are valuable and the results are sometimes spectacular (Tata Bambo Kouyate's "Diadie Diawara" on the Shanachie CD is a good example), in
my mind, nothing beats a superlative Mande or Wasulu voice soaring over traditional instruments. The excellent recording quality of this CD capturesthe full power of this combination. 

On "The Divas from Mali", the contrast between Mande and Wasulu music is quite dramatic: after six Mande songs, the listener must make an abrupt transition to the Wasulu sound of Sali Sidibé and Oumou Sangaré. Keeping in mind that such comparisons often point to relative rather than absolute differences and can be somewhat subjective, let me suggest some distinctions. As Eric Charry mentioned in a recent post to the Djembe-l (Subject: Re: Cross Ref Intro (Mande/Mandeng; May 13, 1998), one profound difference, that colors everything else, is that Mande jeli music is primarily heptatonic , i.e., it uses a seven tone scale while Wasulu music is pentatonic (five tone scale), which gives the later a bluesy sound. Instrumentation is also different. 

Jeli singers are usually backed by kora, balafon, or (especially in Mali) ngoni ; on this CD both Mande singers are accompanied by kora and balafon. The primary instruments of Wasulu music are the kemalan ngoni and soukou (Fula spike fiddle) and this style tends to make more extensive of use of drums than does Mande jeli music. Consequently ,the former tends to be more groove oriented while the latter is generally ethereal and stately. Turning now to singing styles, Mande jeli singing is generally highly improvisational in nature: the basic melody of the song is sung briefly and is followed by several minutes of melodic, rhythmic and thematic improvisation. This improvisational style makes Mande jeli singing challenging for the listener in the same way that the music of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane is challenging. On the other hand, Wassulu singers tend to improvise by modulating pitch and rhythm within the context of the melodic structure of song although they (especially Oumou Sangaré) do sometimes stretch out quite a bit, but rarely as much as the jeli moussolou.

This CD begins with Kandia Kouyaté, who is recognized as one of the finest jeli mousslou of her generation and has toured the world and even performed on Broadway. Here she is accompanied on balafon by her uncle Bouraima Kouyaté, a long-time member of the Ensemble National du Mali. On one track they are joined on kora by Toumani Diabaté and Sidiki Diabaté (you heard correctly, Toumani Diabaté and his father Sidiki Diabaté) while the other two tracks Djeli Moussa Sissoko handles the kora duties. Kandia Kouyaté gives three powerful vocal performances. She excels at both long sustained notes as well as rapidly paced phases. While jeli singers rely on a series of clichés (it should be noted that even these clichés require considerable vocal skill), great singers, like Kandia Kouyaté have a remarkable ability to develop such clichés into novel phrases or sequences of phrases for soulfull effect.

 Mah Damba was the sole Diva featured on this CD that I hadn't heard of previously. She is the daughter of Djeli Baba Sissoko and has sung with Kassé Mady Diabaté and the Mandé Foli ensemble and on this CD amply justifies the choice to include her among the Divas from Mali. Her songs were recorded live at Cologne. Backed by Lansiné Kouyaté on balafon, Ma Damba's first song "Sounafi" has, surprisingly, a distinctively Wasulu quality and the delicacy of her singing actually reminds this reviewer of Oumou Sangaré, who appears later on the CD. Her second song, "Jarabi" is probably the strongest performance on the CD. "Jaribi" is one of the most
beautiful songs in the jeli repertoire (Ami Koita, Bembeya Jazz National and Toumani Diabate have all recorded memorable versions) and on this version Mah Damba and Lansiné Kouyaté are joined by Djeli Moussa Diawara, the renowned Guinean kora player and singer. On "Jarabi" Djeli Moussa Diawara's kora playing and singing is truly inspired and together the three musicians deliver a hauntingly beautiful performance. The last track from the Cologne concert is a solo balafon piece (Jeli) by Lansiné Kouyaté that showcases his fine playing.

Moving now to the two Wassulu singers, the initial notes of the kamalen ngoni and the soukou on Sali Sidibé's "Dunia Djamou" clearly mark how different Wassulu music is from the Mande music that preceded it. This difference is reinforced when Sali Sidibé begins to sing. The daughter of an Iman and a woman from the Fulani nobility, Sali Sidibé became a featured performer of the Ensemble National du Mali at a young age. She is a passionate singer with a full, throaty voice and her singing, which relies heavily on microtonal modulation, is similar to that of Nahama Doumbia, another fine Wassulu singer; the major difference is that Sali Sidibé has a bigger, deeper voice. On "Dunia Djamuu" and "Djana Djani", Harouna Samaké, on kamalen ngoni, Zouman Teréka on soukou, Sama Diabaté on balafon, and Modibo Diabaté on dundun and djembe provide insistent and supple grooves for Sali Sidibé's gritty vocals. Zouman Teréka's soukou playing, in particular, stands out.

The final Diva is Oumou Sangaré, who has gained the greatest degree of international success, and of the singers presented here,  is also the one who makes the greatest use of Western musical arrangements and instrumentation (Eric Charry made this general point in his May 13, 1998 post), two circumstances which are no doubt related. However, I consider that Oumou Sangaré's use of use of non traditional musical elements has been judicious, avoiding the excess of some AfroPop stars and remaining close to her roots. Oumou Sangaré's voice is at once velvet smooth and explosive and lyrically she challenges many of the social barriers and inequities that Malian women experience. The two songs of hers that appear on this disk are "Djama Kaissoumou" and "Dugu Kamelena" which were previously released on "Mossoulou" and "Ko Sira", her first two CDs. Oumou Sangaré's singing style is marked by understatement; "Dugu Kamelena" is a good example of how effective this approach can be. After the instrumental and chorus intro, Oumou Sangaré enters with a quick phrase which she follows by a gorgeous sustained note and then moves in a long, flowing series of phrases, during which she keeps her voice on a tight reign yet producing a wealth of subtle nuances. The result is restrained  power. Hearing Sali Sidibé and Oumou Sangaré side by side illustrates that how different singers belonging to the same musical tradition can be. Oumou Sangaré is more versatile both in terms of her song writing and her vocal approach, exploring a wide range of vocal qualities from a delicate whisper to a powerful blues shout, yet this reviewer finds Sali Sidibé straightforward and straight-from-the-gut approach equally compelling. This CD comes in an attractive package (with a great black and white cover photo) and the recording quality is excellent. The liner notes are written in German,  French and English and include fairly complete biographical information on each singer as well as some stylistic information. Thus, this is an excellent introduction to the musical gold mine represented by the contemporary female singers of Mali. I should add, however, that this CD merely scratches the surface. Just to mention the ones that I am familiar with, Ami Koïta, Nahawa Doumbia, Adama Diabaté , Aminata Kamissoko, Coumba Sididé, Bintan Kouyaté, Nainey  Diabaté and Tata Bambo Kouyaté are all gifted singers and are worthy of the attention of students of West African music. Of course, the obvious question that needs addressed is why am I recommending a CD where there is so little drumming. My only response is that these singers, as do the other great African singers, possess the same mastery of time and feel, the same rhythmic variety, the same impeccable phasing, the same improvisational flair and the same capacity for personal expression within a clearly defined and well-established tradition that the leading djembefolas possess. Thus, the medium of expression is different but the sources of inspiration and many of the musical qualities are the same.

Kandia Kouyaté 
1. Kounady La Benô
2. Samba Sike
3. Djaoura

Kandia Kouyaté: vocals
Bouraima Kouyaté: balafon
Sidiki Diabaté: kora (track 1)
Toumani Diabaté: kora (track 1)
Djeli Moussa Sissoko: kora (tracks 2 & 3)

Mah Damba
4. Soundafi
5. Jarabi
6. Jeli

Mah Damba, vocals
Lansine Kouyaté: balafon
Djeli Moussa Diawara: kora, vocals (track 5)
Lansiné Kouyaté

Sali Sidibé 
7. Dunia Djamuu
8. Djana Djani

Sali Sidibé, vocals
Harouna Samaké: kamalen ngoni, vocals
Zouman Teréka: soukou
Sama Diabaté: balafon
Modibo Diabaté: dundun, djembe

Oumou Sangaré
9. Djama Kaissoumou
10. Dugu Kamelenba

Oumou Sangaré: lead vocals
Nabintou Diakité: chorus vocals
Oumou Sinayoro: chorus vocals (track 9)
Alima Touré: chorus vocals (track 10)
Brehima Diakité: kamalen ngoni
Boubacar Diallo: guitar
Ailou Traoré: violin
Amadou Ba Guindo: bass (track 9)
Ibrahima Sarr: djembe (track 10)
Massambou Wele Diallo: percussion (track 10)

Tom Daddesio