Na Hawa Doumbia – La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol. 3

January 01, 1970

(Awesome Tapes from Africa)


Na Hawa Doumbia was just beginning a four-decade long career as one of Mali’s foremost
female singers when she recorded the four songs on La Grande Cantatrice: Vol. 3. This particular recording was one of
three made in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 1982, released in vinyl and for many
years unavailable. It is the first physical release from Awesome Tapes from
Africa, an mp3 blog which uncovers and disseminates music from rare cassette
tapes from the African continent. [Crucial
stuff at that. – Afrocentric Collector Ed.


In 1982, Doumbia was just two years past her first public performance
at the 1980 Youth Week in Bamako, where she won first prize for her song “Tinye
De Be Laban”.  She had, only recently
broken free of the caste restrictions that forbid people outside the Manding
tribe from becoming musicians. A young woman, by the photo hardly more than a
teenager, she was just beginning to win recognition for her warm, soulful
interpretation of the Wassoulou tradition.


Even so, she sounds remarkably strong and assured. Her voice is
powerful, almost blunt in the way it punches out the notes, yet sinuous as it
navigates complex slurs and slides and flourishes, subtle as it trails off into
a whisper. Her singing dominates the recording, effortlessly overshadowing
complex, multi-tonal, polyrhythmic mixes of guitar, piano, drums and assorted
Malian instruments (kamele ngoni, for instance, a small harp-like instrument
related to the American banjo).


Doumbia’s voice is so strong that she becomes a sort of beacon shining
through hazy, hallucinatory arrangements, her voice overwhelmingly bright and
clear and slightly nasal. Her singing cuts cleanly through the blues-evoking
slither of “Ko Ro Dia,” calls out like a brass band over the shifting,
shuffling sandblock and hand drum rhythms of “Dan Te Dinye La,” and quite
simply demolishes the gentler, more lyrical guitar playing of “Danaya.” She’s
almost too big for the song, here, leveling delicate arrangements with a single
trumpet-like sustained note.


In fact, you get the sense of a young woman just starting to test the
limits of her strength, sometimes knowing when to pull back and other times just
letting go with the full power of a magnificent voice. Compare this, for
instance, to the more mature work of fellow Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangare, and
Doumbia sounds rougher and less nuanced, less willing to vary the intensity,
more willing to swing for the fences.  Yet the contrast between her forceful delivery
and the laid-back witchery of this disc’s arrangement is never less than
fascinating. It’s like watching a blowtorch flame emerge from flickering
embers, startling, all out of proportion, yet fundamentally made of the same stuff.
She stutters the quick notes of “Kungo Sogoni” with the same staccato intensity
as her guitar player. She draws out the long ones to the same shimmering,
drone-y resonance as her backing band. She’s just so much louder than they are.
She can’t or least hasn’t yet learned to modulate her approach.


Doumbia was known for her social messages and her dedication to the
rights of the women. The lyrics to these songs were unavailable at press time,
unfortunately, so exactly what she’s singing about remains a mystery. However,
it’s clear that she’s singing from a standpoint of strength and empowerment,
unafraid to assert either her views or her artistic vision. That, in itself,
conveys a feminist message which must have been unusual for that time and




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