West Africa, and Mali in particular, is rich in musical traditions. It holds a special place in the history of modern popular music. One of those traditions, identified as a direct ancestor of the American blues (and one of the most popular in Mali today) is Wassoulou. Wassoulou music is almost always sung by women and often addresses social issues facing women in today’s Mali. Wassoulou is home to the likes of the legendary Oumou Sangaré, Fatoumata Diawara, and the wonderful Nahawa Doumbia.
Nahawa Doumbia was not born into the jeli caste of traditional singers but, despite family and social pressures, she became one of the most popular musicians in Mali: and she has been for 40 years. Doumbia has embraced the folk traditions of her heritage and has used her extraordinary voice to address the social issues of her homeland.
And now, after a 10-year hiatus, Doumbia is back with a new set of original songs. “Kanawa”, the word and the song, refers to the youth fleeing poverty and unemployment in Mali, and often dying while attempting to cross the Sahara or the Mediterranean. Kanawa, the album, addresses this crisis among others.
There is no shortage of material: in the last few years, Mali has – in addition to facing the global pandemic – faced inter-ethnic conflict, terrorist attacks, kidnappings, drought, civil unrest, and a coup d’état. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of Africa’s Al-Qaeda affiliates, even banned music in Mali’s north, and some musicians received death threats. But Doumbia is no militant. She addresses these issues constructively: by promoting economic development and the creation of jobs to prevent the youth fleeing; by addressing poverty and domestic violence; and by encouraging tolerance and peace.
Kanawa features many of the hallmarks of the Wassoulou tradition, including the n’goni, a 4-string, harp-like guitar; its close relative the kamalengoni, a smaller version with 6 or more strings; the djembe drum; and the karinyan, a metal-scraping percussion instrument. The vocals, also keeping with tradition, are passionate and soulful, and on many tracks feature a call-and-response pattern with fantastic backing vocals.
Nahawa Doumbia is often associated with didadi, a specific style of polyrhythm usually accompanied by chanting and dancing. It is common during New Year’s and other celebrations. Often, especially in her earlier records, Doumbia would mix traditional music and didadi rhythms with modern studio effects, creating an Afropop-Wassoulou hybrid that became popular during the 1980s.
But it’s on the more traditional, stripped-back tunes where this music really shines, and there are several examples on Kanawa. “Djougoh” has some lovely interplay between a n’goni and a kamalengoni, and some great djembe playing. Doumbia’s voice has become even more expressive with age: it’s as passionate as it ever has been, and now has a gorgeous, weathered crackle to it.
Other album highlights include the soulful “Hine”, a hypnotic blues song with a funky bassline and a cool, reggae-style stroke-up on the karignan. It’s an extended cut that maintains a steady groove, and is a great example of how Wassoulou music has informed the blues. Doumbia’s daughter, Doussou Bagayoko – a Malian star in her own right – sings on the standout “Adjorobena”, a song about patience, tolerance, and living in peace. It features a repetitive n’goni lick reminiscent of hill-country blues artists like R.L. Burnside, and is remarkably similar to the Bentonia-style fingerpicking on Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ version of the classic “Vicksburg Blues”.
Not everything works here, though. “Didadi”, the song, offers a change of pace and is a fine example of the didadi rhythm. Doumbia sounds wonderful, and there’s some great backing vocals and djembe playing on this too. But the drum programming is reminiscent of some of her earlier work and it feels a little out of place here. “Ndiagneko” is more of the same. The title track is too, but it does have some impassioned vocals, and addresses the refugee crisis the album is named for. In the right setting, these songs could be fun, and it’s not hard to imagine them being played in a celebratory setting without the studio effects. But those effects do detract from the otherwise organic aesthetic of the record.
There are some good examples of a more harmonious fusion of traditional and modern influences on Kanawa. The opener, “Blonda Yirini”, has an extended intro with a bluesy guitar riff, and the song features a prominent bassline. But the more traditional instruments, especially the n’goni, take centre stage and the call and response with the backing vocalists is fantastic on this one. The previously mentioned “Hine” and “Adjorabena” also have modern touches, featuring some pretty funky bass.
There’s also a totally unexpected feature on the closer “Foliwilen”, where a gunshot sample repeatedly rings out, supposedly paying tribute to courageous soldiers and hunters. It’s a shocking inclusion, but it works. The track is a stripped-back, traditional cut centred largely around a pulsing n’goni repetition. The gunshots add an edge, as do the great vocal stabs of the backing vocalist. Doumbia sounds incredible here, especially as she holds one particular note during the chorus. It’s a stunning song.
Kanawa largely achieves the right balance between the old and the new. The grooves of the Wassoulou tradition and Doumbia’s voice are both striking. The folk tradition is upheld and Nahawa Doumbia, as always, passionately addresses many of the social issues facing her people, capturing this moment in Malian history – and it sounds great.