12 Feb 2018

Médoune Diallo: 11/02/1949 - 10/02/2017. R.I.P.

The popular Senegalese singer Médoune Diallo, who achieved international fame as a member of Orchestra Baobab and Africando, died on February 10th, one day shy of his 69th birthday.


Diallo was a native of Senegal’s northern Fouta Toro region. His first language was Fulani, and he learned French in school. He was still a teenager when he made his way to the national capital, Dakar, where he quickly acquired the predominant local language, Wolof, and also picked up some Spanish, mainly by singing along with records by Cuban and Puerto Rican singers. Latin music was exceedingly popular in Dakar, and many Senegalese bands played it. Diallo started singing with several semi-professional bands around the city and was soon noticed by the owners of Club Baobab, who were recruiting musicians into their house band. He accepted their invitation to join the band that would soon become one of the most popular in the city, then throughout Senegal and around West Africa: Orchestra Baobab.

One of Baobab’s four (sometimes five) singers who took turns with the lead and in the chorus, Diallo had a high, reedy voice with a plaintive tone. He usually sang the lead on Spanish and French songs, some of which he wrote, but over time his repertoire grew to include songs he wrote and sang in Fulani and Wolof as well. A favourite among fans was “Gouye Gui”, a tribute to the band that performed it; the title is the Wolof name for the baobab tree. 

In 1978 Baobab went to Europe to record an album in Paris and give a few concerts in other cities, but the venture lost money and dashed hopes that Baobab’s appeal would travel beyond West Africa. Back in Dakar the band continued to perform regularly and record new material for release on cassettes, but even when it enjoyed one of its biggest hits with Diallo’s “Autorail” in 1981, its elegant cosmopolitan style was already losing popularity to the hyperkinetic sound of bands like Youssou N’dour’s Étoile de Dakar, and at the end of 1982 Orchestra Baobab disbanded.

Over the next ten years Diallo sang with a succession of Dakar salsa bands, recorded a few cassettes, and retained a loyal (if nostalgic) following, but in 1992 his career took an unexpected upturn. World Circuit released Orchestra Baobab’s 14-year-old Paris album to international acclaim and, concurrently though unrelatedly, Senegalese record producer Ibrahima Sylla (who had produced “Autorail”) invited Diallo to accompany him to New York to record with a new band he was calling Africando. It would include two other Senegalese salsa singers (Pape Seck and Nicolas Menheim), a Cuban-American singer (Ronaldo Baró), and New York’s best Latin instrumentalists, all under the direction of the Malian composer and arranger Boncana Maiga. 

Africando’s New York recording session produced enough material (including five songs by Diallo) for two albums. Both were tremendously successful in Senegal, but, to almost everyone’s surprise, the Sterns Music releases were lauded in America and Europe as well. Meanwhile, Sterns reissued recordings Orchestra Baobab had made in 1980 and ’81 (including “Autorail”) under the title BAMBA, and World Circuit brought out PIRATES CHOICE, an album of tracks Baobab had cut in ’82. Medoune Diallo, an affable but modest gentleman in his mid-forties, was amazed to realise that he had a stellar international reputation. He enjoyed it, but at times it overwhelmed him. 

Médoune Diallo: New York 1996 (photo: Natalici) Courtesy Sterns Music

Orchestra Baobab reunited in 2001, but by then Diallo had made five albums with Africando and given spectacular concerts in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Dubai, and he decided to stay with Africando rather than rejoin Baobab. After two tours of West Africa, Diallo’s stamina and health began to decline. He contributed one song to each of the last three Africando albums.

Medoune Diallo was preceded in death by original Africando singers Pape Seck and Ronnie Baró, by later members Gnonnas Pedro and Amadou Balaké, and by the band’s founder, Ibrahima Sylla.

8 Dec 2017

Menino Minado by Criolo

In a recent 4 star Guardian review of Criolo's latest album

The reviewer noted that: "The thoughtful and languid Menino Mimado is a complaint that “Spoilt boys should not rule the government”". He also, accurately, pointed out that English lyrics were not included in the packaging.

Well, it's true, we haven't got the English lyrics. But in partial compensation, here are the original lyrics and chord chart ... complete with alternative chords!


22 Mar 2017

Dawda Jobarteh - Transitional Times

Dawda's 2nd album, Transitional Times, was released last year to a warm critical reception. fROOTS comment of
"You will very few kora records where the possibilities of this wonderful instrument are explored more thoroughly than they are here; you will find none where the kora is better recorded",
being just one example. Some of the preparatory work and, indeed, some of the recording took place in a small cabin somewhere in the Danish countryside that had been loaned to Dawda for just that purpose, so that he could get away from the cares and distractions of city life and concentrate on the job in hand.

Filmed in October 2015, here's a phone video of what became the first track on the album, the very gentle and meditative "Winter Trees Stand Sleeping"


And here it is as it finally appeared on the finished album:-

Dawda Jobarteh - Transitional Times

15 Dec 2016

Vieux Kanté - The Young Man's Harp - updated personnel

Vieux Kanté: tuning in the yard
With much thanks to Abou Diarra and his manageress Maet Charles, we've received further details of the personnel involved in the The Young Man's Harp. We were able to print some of the information in our booklet, but unfortunately not all names were available to us at the time of release, and so we're happy to provide them now:-

Noumoussa Soumaoro aka Vieux Kanté 
- vocals & kamalé ngoni
Kabadjan Diakite - vocals
Drissa Bagayoko - bass
Bemba Bagayoko - djembé
Demba Diallo - kamalé ngoni
Abou Diarra - kamalé ngoni
Abou Kouyate aka le Général - recording & mix

It's also gratifying to be able to report just how positive the response to this album has been with, among others, The Guardian noting how "his work deserves international recognition",
Songlines commenting on his untimely death and stating that he had "a major talent that ought to have made him star" and, not least, this insightful comment from fROOTS: "Vieux Kanté was one of those remarkable and precious performers who were able to work within a tradition, but whose innovations extend its technical and emotional range."

Had the fates been kinder, we are sure Vieux Kanté would have enjoyed a far greater presence on the international stage. However we're optimistic that our posthumous release of his album can still help spread the word for the remarkable kamalé ngoni and its more recent proponents. To name but a few: Oumar Diallo, Adama Kamissoko,  Dramane Koné,  Mamadou Sidibe, Demba Diallo and Abou Diarra. All and more are definitely worth investigating and, who knows, maybe even yourself could be inspired to buy and study one of these marvelous instruments? 

16 Sept 2016

Urgent Jumping! - East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics

“We’ll offer work to three of them. That third drummer’s been listening to the records, and the last two singers know the lyrics well.”

It’s mid-August 1993, and I’m sitting in a deserted club in Dar es Salaam with Congolese soukous star Kanda Bongo Man and Kanda’s longtime guitarist and arranger, Nene Tchakou. The mid-afternoon sun slants across the beer glasses on the tables, still unwashed from the night before.

Why don’t you bring a full band from Paris when you tour East Africa?” I ask Kanda. There’s no point,” he replies. “These East African musicians and singers are probably the best on the continent. They know what’s expected, the singers and drummers especially, so we just hire and rehearse when we get here. I only need Nene to come; he MDs the shows.” And, apart from the last-minute addition to the frontline of the legendary Congolese vocalist Tchico Tchicaya, who happens to be in Dar at the time, that‘s how the shows are performed over the next few weeks.

I’m the resident DJ for a series of Kanda Bongo Man gigs in Dar, mainly at two clubs, one an old-school ‘hooch ‘n’ hookers’ joint, the other state-of-the-art modern beachside. The latter is to be opened by the Prime Minister and his wife, both keen music-lovers. I’ve come with four boxes of records (1993, so all vinyl), two of which overshoot Nairobi airport, travel on to Johannesburg, and return to Kenya on a flight two days later, unharmed and undiminished. Luckily, the returnees include my batch of classic Congolese-style rumba, the music loved and revered by the older generation of East Africans, called zilizopendwa in Kenya and zilipendwa in Tanzania, both terms loosely translated as ‘golden oldies’.

Kanda’s words will be familiar to all musicians who have recorded or toured in East Africa. That afternoon in rehearsal, we hear maybe eight or nine singers, and every one of them is either very good or outstanding. It’s one of the reasons why the mighty Congolese orchestras – TPOK Jazz, Afrisa, Johnny Bokelo and so many others – particularly enjoy touring in Kenya and Tanzania. Things are well-organised, almost everyone understands his job description, gigs start on time, the audiences are appreciative of and familiar with the music, and they dance serebuka (literally ‘blissful expressive dance’) using graceful moves, mtindo, that seem to fit everything from ‘50s Kenyan guitar-twist and Cuban-influenced rumba to modern R&B.

Almost a quarter-century later, even the youth, obsessed with the individualistic style of hip-hop and R&B-based bongo flava (Tanzania), genge and kapuka (Kenya), still respect and sample the classic zilipendwa bands in preference to the more ethnically-based Luo benga and Kamba guitar bands, whose ten-minute 140 BPM workouts are bizarrely but serendipitously, supremely popular with the picós de champeta (Colombian carnival sound-systems) on the other side of the Atlantic, the old vinyl having initially reached South America via a network of visiting sailors and smuggling routes.

There was a strong and skilled recording industry in Nairobi in the early ‘60s, with many local entrepreneurs and investment from multinational recording labels. This was made all the more vibrant with Kenyan independence and the consequent inward flow of resources and talent from all over sub-Saharan Africa.

East Africa had a unique and exciting mixture of artistic collaboration in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There was an urban studio elite, a group of musicians from various ethnic backgrounds performing in ‘non-tribalised’ Swahili and recruited by English record producers. Then there was a separate group of outstanding Luhya musicians also performing in Swahili but professing allegiance to the Indian-owned River Road studio and record labels. And finally there were the more vernacular-based musicians who were spearheading the nascent benga and Kamba Stratocaster/percussion workouts. Put that all together and you had a perfect storm of international and parochial musical genius, with the focus on the 45-rpm vinyl format.

The feverish musical activity in clubs, hotels, private functions and recording studios in Nairobi, Dar, Mombasa, Arusha, Kisumu, Mwanza, Tanga and elsewhere became a magnet for the Congolese big bands, whose limited domestic work opportunities were a constant source of frustration. It also attracted kwela combos from southern Africa, whose influence in the early ‘60s could be found in Zambia, Rhodesia, Botswana, Malawi and Kenya, and not to forget the work of ‘dry’ guitarists Peter Tsotsi, a Nairobi-based Zambian, and John Mwale, and also John Nzenze whose playing helped found the Kenyan ‘twist’ craze.

With its large professional and middle-class Asian, Arabic and Indian population, East Africa’s coastal and island regions provided yet another destination for ‘beach party’ music consumers, including – before Idi Amin expulsions started to bite – weekend safari parties from Uganda.

Much has been written of Zanzibar’s taarab music, its blend of accordions, violins and voices providing the perfect fusion of Bollywood filmscore with African rhythmic sensibility, and of the erotic 6/8 chakacha music of the Mombasa coastal region, a sort of traditional East African ‘girls’ night out’ genre whose popularity lives on in the work of today’s pop stars such as Diamond Platnumz and Nasema Nawe. At least in part, from British marching bands has grown beni music, an all-purpose Africanised taarab for street parades and wedding parties, as well as Sidi Sufi music, the recently reinvented Afro-Indian trance music of Gujarat. All are easily heard today in Zanzibar.

And let’s not even get started on one Farrokh Bulsara, a Zanzibar-born Parsi Indian, whose controversial legacy is still felt in the region. (He was better known by Westerners, and much better loved, as Freddie Mercury.)

So, back to Dar, 1993. The club’s full, the Prime Minister and his wife and entourage have arrived, and I’ve been spinning my favourite Lingala and Swahili rumbas for nearly an hour, but no-one’s dancing. Then the honoured guests take to the floor as a couple, and immediately everyone’s up and dancing too. Relief. It was simply an issue of traditional deference, and serebuka has finally deigned to bless our zilipendwa party.


East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics 1972 - 1982

Sterns has been fortunate in securing access to one of the most valuable and extensive mastertape libraries of classic East African popular music. Much of the material has never seen the light of day since first issued more than four decades ago, and many of the selections command three-figure auction prices in their original 7-inch 45-rpm format. For this compilation I have made no attempt to segregate Kenyan and Tanzanian artists; Tanzanians play in Kenyan bands, Kenyans in Tanzanian, and Congolese and other Central and Southern African musicians in both.

Uganda would be included in any compilation of today’s East African popular music, but in the ‘70s and early ‘80s (the era of these performances) Kampala’s version of zilipendwa semadongo (‘master of many big musics’) – was, with the honourable exception of The Afrigo Band, still in its infancy.

There is no taarab as such here – that would need at least two CDs’ worth by itself – but there is music with that distinctive Indian Ocean flavour. Slim Ali, usually an Anglophone funk performer, teams up with a taarab group for a distinctive chakacha shuffle. The same 6/8 Mombasa tempo is imaginatively exploited by the criminally under-recorded (one LP, a handful of 45s) Sunburst – or, perhaps, taking into account the several different mastertape spellings – Sunbust Band. The Zairean, Zambian and Tanzanian players in this afro-rock ensemble called their sound kitoto and epitomized how pointless it is to compartmentalise ‘70s East African music.

But the main thrust of the music is benga and zilipendwa, the dominant mainstream sounds of the era. Benga can be full-throttle (The Kauma Boys, Peter Owino Rachar’s Golden Kings), but it can also have poise and grace (Victoria Jazz, Sega Sega Band). Zilipendwa is generally more commodious than benga, not only to languages but also to various stylistic influences, both local and imported.

Starting in the early ‘60s, Congolese bands flooded East Africa. They brought with them Cuban influences along with the latest Kinshasa and Brazzaville dance crazes: kavacha, kwasa kwasa and so on. Like Kanda Bongo Man twenty years later, they recruited Swahili vocalists and instrumentalists, and rapidly learnt Swahili themselves, their sets comprising songs in the region’s main languages and several dialects.

Sterns customers will be familiar with the outstanding compilation Sister Pili + 2, featuring the prolific singer Batamba Wendo Morris, aka Moreno, who had been a lead vocalist with Safari Sound, Virunga, Les Noirs and several other bands. In 1980 he co-founded L’Orchestre Moja One in Nairobi, where “Dunia Ni Duara” was recorded, later to become a Colombian champeta sound-system classic, ‘covered up’ as “La Gallinita”. Sides A and B of the original 45 have here been deftly interwoven into a ten-minute blast more suited to modern ears. Piqueros and champeteros, time to update your playlists!

Stax soul singers – Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Arthur Conley and the rest – were of course massively popular all over Africa, with Kenya and Tanzania being no exception, and Maquis De Zaire’s horn arranger pays ample tribute to the Memphis sound in “Denise”.

Johnny Bokelo
Congolese-naturalised guitarist and bandleader Johnny Bokelo (born João Botelho in Luanda) remains one of the great untold stories of African music, a modernizer and arranger on par with Manu Dibango and Fela Kuti and an astonishingly prolific recording artist under a bewildering array of aliases, including L’Orchestre Congo International. The opening bars of “Nakupenda Sana” suggest a double-speed Benin-style afrobeat, but repeated listening yields an altogether different Mandingue-funk flavour, especially in the guitars, which suggest Ousmane Kouyaté or Djelimady Tounkara.

Orchestre Special Liwanza delivers “Vicky”, nearly 10 minutes of driving, Prince Youlou-style Congo-mambo, featuring leader and vocalist Jimmy Moninambo and guitarist Tabu Frantal plus a sharp horn section. Liwanza once backed Ivorian salsero Laba Sosseh on a Sacodis recording session in Abidjan, as Alastair Johnston conjectures, so they were clearly flexible musicians.

Three legendary East African bands make multiple appearances. After running The Safari Trippers successfully for many years, singer-songwriter Marijani Rajabu formed the mighty Orchestre Dar es Salaam International. Rajabu has been called ‘the Bob Dylan of zilipendwa’, and there are few Tanzanians of a certain age who don’t know the lyrics to at least several of his hundreds of compositions – short stories of love, jealousy, poverty, tragedy and the misuses of power and authority. The band on the four songs here is on top form, “Rufaa Ya Kiko” starting as a ‘weekend shuffle’, resolving at around 3’14” into a relentless mambo, with “Rudi Nyumbani” following a similar trajectory. “Rafiki Sina” shows the band on a gentle savannah-style ballad, the only one in this compilation.

The 2004 funeral of Patrick Balisidya, founder and, for four decades, the driving force of Afro 70, halted the traffic in downtown Dar for an entire morning. The band’s two tracks here show exceptional versatility, from soul-funk to rumba without a flicker.

Though the various Super Mambo groups suffered a bewildering number of name changes over the years, their basic personnel remained roughly consistent throughout. Their speciality was a sort of Latinate, Hawaiian-influenced guitar rumba and cha cha cha followed by several tempo-changing sebenes. Their sought-after singles regularly fetch serious money on eBay from Latin music fans looking for something different. If you get the chance, check out Super Mambo Jazz 69’s sole RCA Victor LP, which includes another Colombian champeta hit, “Maria Ayebi” (retitled “El Mambotazo”).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I started off with more than 1000 tracks, shuffled and reshuffled to a shortlist of around 60, reducing to 27 for this first volume by means of little more than a blindfold, a drawing-pin and instinct. There are at least another 27 more tracks earmarked for a possible Volume 2, and it’s my hope that the many excellent and knowledgeable old-school Afro DJs worldwide will now start to add a little more zilipendwa to their usual afrobeat, highlife, soukous and makossa playlists.


* * *

John Armstrong


12 Sept 2016

Vieux Kanté: The Young Man's Harp

Vieux Kanté is not an uncommon name in Mali, but it can get very confusing when, such is your fame, your name is adopted by others to help them get a gig. This, anecdotally, is exactly what happened to Noumoussa Soumaoro aka Vieux Kanté. As Afropop Worldwide editor Banning Eyre writes:-

Vieux Kante was born in 1974 in Niesmala in the Sikasso region of Mali. Though blind from childhood, he participated in musical activities like other kids, starting at the age of seven on djembe drum. Vieux’s talent was immediately obvious to all. When he was eleven his brothers would go out to work in the fields, leaving him alone in the house. Vieux took to borrowing his brothers’ six-string harp, the kamale n’goni (youth harp), and learned to play the things he had heard on the radio and at local parties, where the kamale n’goni was then king.

This instrument was not restricted by the secrecy and taboo surrounding hunter’s culture and, in fact, was something of a youth itself, having only been invented in the 1960s. But in a few short years it had transformed village recreation throughout the Wassoulou region. So Vieux tapped into a deep vein of popular emotion when he emerged as one of the hottest young players.”

Towards the end of the 90s and by some accounts, aided by a Dutch hotel owner, Vieux Kanté visited Europe where he recorded with saxophonist Hans Dulfer, and also made a cameo appearance on ‘Mali Jazz’, the 1999 album by pioneering big band, Fra Fra Sound, where he’s credited as “Moussa ‘Vieux’ Kanté”. From 1997, a grainy YouTube clip shows him sharing a stage with both the Fra Fra Big Band and Lester Bowie.

Back in Bamako he proved an innovator who helped to develop the instrument, and by 2000 his kamale n’goni boasted 12 strings. As Banning writes “These modifications gave him more than an octave and a complete major or minor scale. As for the remaining notes, the “jazz notes,” Vieux said that although they are not on the instrument, he could play them - ”You have to do those yourself,” he said, “using your own head.” “

By this time Vieux Kanté’s fame in the villages and fields of the Wassoulou region that extends across southern Mali, northern Guinea and parts of the Ivory Coast, was assured. Songs were written in his name and, as noted, other performers either already had, or had adopted, his name. 

When we met Vieux (Banning notes) he demonstrated amazing techniques … (and) it was obvious why he was considered one of the most dynamic and accomplished solo players in the country. At the time, he was leading his own group and word was they had recorded a cassette, but it had yet to hit the market. Then, just a few months later,

we heard that Vieux had died after a sudden illness.”

It’s been a long wait, but finally that Mali-produced cassette finds an international audience on Sterns Africa as “The Young Man’s Harp” 

The following is from an interview with Kabadjan Diakite by Abdramane Fall and Modibo Diarra in early 2016

MD: Good morning, can you introduce yourself?

KD: My name is Kabadjan Diakite. I was in the Orchestre National of Guinea, ‘Les Badial’. When I came to Mali to see my senior brother Sékou Kanté who was with the ‘Rail Band’, I first met Vieux whom I naturally admired.

MD: As a matter of fact, let us talk about Vieux. How did you come across him?

KD: My senior brother Sékou asked me to accompany him to Zani Diabaté’s so that he could introduce me to him. That was when Vieux entered and I immediately noticed him and said ‘Nkoro, who is the person who has just entered?’. He answered that it was Vieux but made no other comment. And without seeking to understand, I told my senior brother that I wanted to work with that man.

I went to him at Torokorobougou, but could not meet him then and so asked his sisters to give him a message. When I finally did speak to him, I said that I’d seen him on television and admired him greatly. I let him know that I came from Guinea Conakry but lived in Mali and that, absolutely, I wanted to work with him.

At that time he was performing at the ‘Hotel Les Arbres’ and I was performing at ‘Mande Hotel’, and so I often went to see him at sessions in ‘Les Arbres’ which continued until the early hours. It was there he suggested that he come to visit me in my house, and so we became friends. Later he proposed that I accompany him on at the ‘Hotel Les Arbres’ and the important ladies who came to watch us meant we could really do great things.

And me, filled with wonder about his talent, I asked him if there was a ghost in his kamalé ngoni, because I knew other guitar, kora and ngoni players, but I had never met anyone like Vieux. 

He was the head of the band, I was his deputy. My senior brother even suggested I leave ‘Le Super Diatabande’ so that I could work with Vieux, but I couldn’t as I considered this a kind of betrayal. Nevertheless I continued working with Vieux and we recorded at the studio of Salif Keita at Dielibougou. We recorded seven songs, of which he sang four such as

Tènè tounou tchinnou,
Haaannnn loni deni fari ne wala di ...”

and I sang three among which were ‘Kono’

Hééééé kônô kônô kônô
Mande Kalou la Kônô bôlén dé Guinée
Djin djin djin ...”

and ‘Sinamon’

Karamô Kê nana
O ki yala kounngo le kônô
Sina mousso ni djou dô wilila
Ka fô kara mô ke yé

The wicked co-wife who wanted to set a dangerous snake against another wife, but the snake bit her and she herself died. The moral of the song is that when you want to harm somebody you may possibly harm yourself.

He said that I had a golden voice, and I told him “Heeee Vieux, me I am afraid of your talent, and now you want to be afraid of me?!”. He then suggested that I should become the head of the band because I am experienced and have been to foreign countries, but I refused saying that to lead is a matter of destiny.

MD: Did you tour together?

KD: Yes, thanks to Mr Zalé, the ex-mayor of the district V of Bamako, we toured almost throughout the whole Mali (Timbuktu, Gao and Bandiagara) as well as Burkina Faso.

MD: Can you tell us about when Vieux died?

KD: If I have a good memory, he died between 2005 and 2006, for our collaboration started in 1998, the year of the African Cup of Nation in Ouaga. His wife died a year before him and they left behind a son bearing the name of Mamadou.

His death really shocked me. But despite all, I continue performing. I perform very well with the musical band, even at present.

MD: What is your conclusion?

KD: I thank you journalists for having come over so that we can talk about the death of my friend and brother. I equally greet all the artists, who all know me more or less directly, either by my name or by my work. I greet you and confide in you for the future. I thank you.

14 Oct 2015

Kandia Kouyaté: Renascence

re.nas.cence [riˈnasəns; -ˈnāsəns]

the revival of something that has been dormant ...

Kandia Kouyaté in interview 2015 (photo courtesy Binetou Sylla)
The Mandé art of jeliya carries a long and complex tradition of fine distinctions and endless debates about the qualities that earn its hereditary poets, musicians and soothsayers the highest accolades and honorifics. But on the great jelimusolu (female singers) of our time, there is near-unanimity regarding Kandia Kouyaté: she is a ngara. More than a skilled singer, a ngara is the extraordinary artist who possesses what many would say is a paranormal aura of majesty.

Renascence: CD on Sterns Music

Born in 1959 in Kita, an ancient city in south-western Mali that has bred many important musicians, Kandia grew up immersed in the arts and customs of the Mandé people. Her father was a celebrated player of the bala (xylophone), and he recognised his daughter’s talent for singing when she was a child. Insisting, however, that she receive a modern education, he enrolled her in a Catholic mission school where all instruction was in French. While excelling in mathematics she continued to sing at family gatherings. When her father became ill and could no longer work, she had to do what she could to support the family, so she left school, having completed eight years, and went to the Malian capital, Bamako. There, at the age of 16, she joined a wedding band that presented a mix of traditional and contemporary, local and foreign repertoires. With her regal beauty and a strong contralto that belied her tender age, Kandia lofted the band’s popularity and drew the attention of the most important musicians and music patrons in the city and in the country.

Kandia Kouyaté circa 1976
Two years after her arrival in Bamako, Kandia married a prominent jeli from Kayes, and it was in his home on the banks of the Senegal River that she undertook the serious study of jeliya – its vocal technique and its canon of proverbs, praises, poems and songs – under the tutelage of her mother-in-law. On a visit to her brother-in-law in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 1980, she gave a private recital that was recorded and circulated around West Africa on cassette. As her reputation spread, invitations to perform at private and public events mounted, and so did her rewards. In addition to cash and gold, wealthy patrons gave her new cars, and one placed a light aircraft at her exclusive disposal. She also earned an epithet, La Dangereuse, from reports that when she sang many listeners felt dizzy and some fainted.

With that kind of success, Kandia saw no reason to make records. She allowed more cassettes-locales to be taped and marketed, but despite their popularity in Mali, they didn’t travel beyond West Africa. The singer, however, did. Well-connected Malian émigrés brought her to France for concerts, and in 1987 she was one of a select group of Mandé jelew that participated in a London festival of royal court music from around the world. In 1989 and ‘90 she appeared in the USA as a star of the package tour called Africa Oyé. Record companies offered her contracts, but she turned them all down. Her most ardent suitor was the Senegalese record producer Ibrahima Sylla. She resisted, he persisted, and eventually he got the opportunity to work with her when the popular Guinean jeli Sékouba Bambino Diabaté invited her to sing a duet with him for his album Kassa (Sterns 1997). That experience convinced her of how much she could do with a good producer in a modern recording studio, but another two years passed before she and Sylla made her first full album for international release on CD.

Kita Kan (Sterns 1999) was a triumph. Produced in Paris, it was unlike any prior album of jeliya. In addition to the traditional Mandé instruments – kora, ngoni, bala, gita and djembé – the exquisite arrangements employed electric guitars in several pieces, horns in others, and, in three songs of breath-taking splendour, a string orchestra. In each setting, and in various styles, Kandia Kouyaté was in full command of her art, her voice resonant and her delivery supple and purposeful. Kita Kan was (and still is), as the British music magazine fRoots put it, “the celebratory showcase of a true diva.”

It was followed three years later by the equally impressive Biriko (Sterns 2002). Working with Sylla and a somewhat smaller number of musicians this time in Abidjan and Paris, Kandia again enlarged her repertoire and stylistic range, singing one song accompanied only by a pair of acoustic guitars, bringing the percussion forward for dance numbers, and here and there using mixed supporting voices to marvellous effect. According to the BBC, Biriko “pulses with integrity and passion, and exudes a deep, reassuring strength.”

Kandia’s next recordings were for two albums entitled Mandekalou: The Art and Soul of the Mande Griots. It had long been Ibrahima Sylla’s ambition to bring the greatest living Mandé jelew together to celebrate the history and culture of the Mandé people, and this he accomplished in 2004. Among the 20 singers and instrumentalists who gathered in Bamako were Sékouba Bambino Diabaté, Kasse Mady Diabaté, Bako Dagnon, Djelimady Tounkara, Djessou Mory Kanté, and, of course, Kandia Kouyaté.

Shortly after that grand summit meeting, Kandia suffered a stroke. Her recovery was slow and difficult, and for seven years she hardly spoke or sang. Even after regaining her strength she considered herself retired. By that time Ibrahima Sylla was in failing health, but he had not lost his ardour for her voice or his awe of her aura, and so in 2011 he visited her home in Bamako and convinced her to return to the recording studio. Lamentably, he did not live to complete the album. He died in 2013, and his daughter Binetou finished the project together with François Bréant, who had worked with Sylla on such recording landmarks as Salif Keita’s Soro (Sterns 1987) and Thione Seck’s Orientation (Sterns 2005). 

Kandia Kouyaté 2015 - Interview (French) 

This new album was made only because of Sylla,” says Kandia. “I had been ill and Sylla was gravely ill, but he was always there [in the studio], encouraging me. He asked me to sing everything I knew, everything that was in my head. I said 'I know nothing. I’ve forgotten everything.' But he insisted. 'Tomorrow it will come back,' he said.”

And it did. Her voice, darker and richer than when it first carried her to fame more than 30 years ago, has an authority that arises from a very deep well of wisdom and spirit. It is the voice of a true ngara. Renascence is Kandia’s resounding declaration of personal and artistic rebirth.

Ken Braun (with thanks to Lucy Durán)

1. Koala Boumba 

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté, Manian Demba & Nanakoul Kouyaté
Acoustic guitar - Fadiala Diawara
Electric guitar - Djely Moussa Kouyaté
Kora - Djely Moussa Condé
Balafon - Lansiné Kouyaté
Bolon - Amadou Sodia
Karignan & yaraba - Mamadou Sacko
Trillian bass & keyboards - François Bréant

The epic journey of the Kouyatés’ ancestors, Kandia’s own lineage, who came from Guinea and settled in Kita, Mali. From there they spread outwards, including to Sikasso, also in Mali, to Burkina Faso and beyond to France and the USA. While they are all children of Yamadi Kouyaté, the descendants of Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté stayed in Kita, and those of Djeli Sotigui Kouyaté went to Bamako, where they were welcomed and provided for by the elders. They did not accept division but always advocated cohesion and unity. Kandia pays tribute to the late Sotigui Kouyaté, the Burkinabé actor who died in 2010 and was a big loss to the Kouyaté family and the world of art. Kandia urges her fellow Kouyaté griots to cultivate unity and brotherhood.

2. Mali Ba

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté
Guitars - Djely Moussa Kouyaté
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Percussion & keyboards - François Bréant

“This is dedicated to Mali, our great country, on the 50th anniversary of its Independence”. In this vibrant tribute to Mali’s past and present political leaders, Kandia invites Malians, young, old, men and women alike, to get up and work harder for their country. She urges them to remember and not to let down the men and women who fought with bravery and courage against colonisation. She sings about the joy that both independence and later democracy brought to the people of Mali.

3. Kassi Doundo (the crying rooster)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté, Manian Demba & Nanakoul Kouyaté
Guitars - Djély Moussa Kouyaté
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Tama - Mamadou Sacko
Triangle, shaker & keyboards - François Bréant

“Oh, what a sight, seeing a nice young man at the entrance of the family compound! Listen, people of Djenne, have you not heard of Bara Koita? He is like the rain needed for seeds to grow. Bara, you are the pride of the Koita and Cissé families and of people wherever you go. Blessed son of Babarou Koita Danbour and Binta Cissé, you carry a heavy load for others. I call on Bara Koita on my way to Djenne, on my way to Bamako and on my way to France. There are not many people of trust and compassion left in this world. Having such a great person around, even if he lives in solitude, is much better than all the silver and gold in this world.”

4. Mogoya Douman (a beautiful relationship)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Acoustic guitar - Fadiala Diawara
Electric guitar - Djely Moussa Kouyaté
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Ngoni - Badjé Tounkara
Djembé & karignan - Mamadou Sacko
Triangle & keyboards - François Bréant

A praise song to Seydou Sidibé, a Fula patron from Biriko, Mali. “I will follow my patron Seydou Sidibé from Biriko and enjoy myself. You have everyone’s respect in Biriko. I will follow the Sidibés of Biriko. Not all men are real men, but my patron Seydou is a real man. You have become a father-figure for many here in Mali and in America. When you are a good person, you become everyone’s friend. You are most blessed; you have been kind to me and so have your wife and children. Thank you for your generosity and kindness.”

5. Dakolo

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Koras : Djely Moussa Condé
Bendir & ghatam : François Bréant

In praise of Mamadou Lah (aka Dakolo), a patron who passed away in November 2014 at the age of only 35. Wealthy and famously generous, he donated freely to the poor and to the griots of Mali. Each year he helped many Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca. When he died the whole country mourned and he was the topic in local and social media for many weeks after. Kandia thanks him for all that he did and especially for his kindness to the poor.

6. Konoba Doundo (a large bird)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté, Manian Demba & Nanakoul Kouyaté
Acoustic guitar - Fadiala Diawara
Electric guitar - Djely Moussa Kouyaté
Guitare électrique - Djely Moussa Condé
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Balafon - Lansiné Kouyaté
Ngoni - Badjé Tounkara
Bongos, shaker & keyboards - François Bréant

“The death of a loved one causes pain, and the void left is hard to bear. But God is good and kind.” Kandia remembers and praises the kindness of Batafin Soumano, her late great-aunt whom, as a mark of affection, she refers to as “Lagaré”, meaning “the youngest of the siblings” or, by extension, “favourite”. She likens Batafin to a big and powerful bird, as she was a great ngara, a mastersinger yet very discreet and one who could never willingly deceive anyone. Batafin was the wife of Fily Dabo Sissoko, an early Malian writer and prominent political figure of the pre-independence years. He fought alongside Modibo Keita, the first president of Mali, for independence from France. Following political disagreements between them, Fily Dabo was imprisoned in Northern Mali, where he died in 1964. He played a big part in the recent history of Mali.

7. Tiè faring (Souri) (brave men)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Manian Demba, Nanakoul Kouyaté & Sekou Kouyaté
Ngonis - Badjé Tounkara
Calabass, karignan & yaraba - Mamadou Sacko
Trillian bass, timbales & keyboards - François Bréant

Dedicated to Sory and the brave Fula men of Biriko. Kandia sings that when the cowards run away their excuse is they do not wish to be a vulture’s lunch. “Let me call the brave Fula men from Marna. I am addressing the real Fula warriors, the mighty blacksmiths and the powerful griots of Biriko who were honourable men and who did so much for my grandfather”.

8. Sadjougoulé (ill health)

Kandia Kouyaté: on location 2015 (photo courtesy Binetou Sylla)

Kandia Kouyate 2015 - CLIP Sadjougoulé

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté, Manian Demba & Nanakoul Kouyaté
Guitars - Djely Moussa Kouyaté
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Kora - Djely Moussa Condé
Balafon - Lansiné Kouyaté
Percussion & keyboards - François Bréant

“Don’t cry, Kandia. A person has no other enemy but illness.” Kandia recalls the health issues which prevented her from performing. “This life is for a short period. When I think about yesterday and look at myself today, I praise God for my life and His good deeds. I am grateful to all my jatigiw (patrons), to the authorities, to Morocco and to all the people in Europe and Asia who helped me to recover. I will not cry because I have children and people to lean on. You find your true friends when you are in need.” She then quotes from the Quran the story of prophet Ayyub (Job). who survived many afflictions, including disease, but remained steadfast to God. Because of this God restored his health and wealth.

9. Mandjala (take off the headscarf!)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Balafon - Lansiné Kouyaté
Djembé & dounumba - Mamadou Sacko
Percussion & keyboards - François Bréant

A light-hearted song in which Kandia invites all women to take off their headscarves and join her in celebrating the arrival of Ami Touré. “Ami Touré, descendant of Mandé Mory, daughter of Fakaba and Fanta. Let’s all take off our headscarves and celebrate, whether we are friends with her or not.” This gesture, like that of men taking off their hats for a woman, symbolises respect.

10. Camara Donfoli (the dance of the Camaras)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté, Manian Demba & Nanakoul Kouyaté
Narrator - Aliou Diabaté
Acoustic guitar - Fadiala Diawara
Guitar - Fadiala Diawara
Kora - Djely Moussa Condé
Balafon - Lansiné Kouyaté
Ngoni - Badjé Tounkara
Bolon - Amadou Sodia
Djembé & dounumba - Mamadou Sacko

Concerning the genealogy and significance of the Camara family name, common in the Mandé area of West Africa. “Ka mara” means to keep the hut or the compound and its content, including the people and the fetish. “Today is a great day in Mandé. Come on and dance with the Camaras, because this is their day”. Kandia sings the history of the Cameras through their journey across Guinea and Mali. It began with Mansa Kiran, the ancestor of Niani Massa Kara who gave birth to six sons. Three of them went to Guinea and settled in the Bouré region, and the other three went to live in Mali, in Kaarta and Siby where Kama-djan himself is from. “Praises and respect are due to all Camara children in Mandé. If you know where you come from, you will know where you’re going”.

Wilfred Willey

Recorded at Studio Bogolan, Bamako, Mali & Studio SoYuz, Paris, France
Sound engineer: Lionel Boutang
Musical production and arrangements by: François Bréant
Produced by: Ibrahima Sylla
Additional production: Binetou Sylla
Coordinator: Sékou Kouyaté
Management : Charlotte Kalala
All words and music by Kandia Kouyaté
Published by Sterns Music Publ.
Photos courtesy: Binetou Sylla
Thanks to Tapa Sylla, Sékou Kouyaté, François Bréant, Julien Dayan and Robert Urbanus.

Je remercie Allah Le tout Puissant et toutes personnes qui m'ont soutenu et aidé pour cet album, ma famille, ma mère, mes diatiguiws, mes amis et tous ceux qui m'ont aidé dans l'épreuve de ma maladie.

Kandia Kouyaté

Kandia Kouyaté in interview 2015 (photo courtesy Binetou Sylla)