Renascence by Kandia Kouyaté
Malian vocalist Kandia Kouyaté's new album definitely lives up to its title. Renascence, her first recording since Kouyaté suffered a stroke in 2004, represents a rebirth of her career, and of her sound, one of the most distinctive in West African music. During her seven-year recovery, she hardly spoke, let alone sang. Even after she had recovered, she had no interest in recording again. But one of her greatest admirers, the Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sylla, doggedly pursued her, and, in 2011, convinced her to return to the studio.
It was a difficult comeback. When they began to work together on the new album, Sylla had to coach Kouyaté; she claimed to have forgotten everything she knew about her art. Sylla, who produced her acclaimed albums Kita Kan (1999) and Biriko (2002), assured her that it would come back, and, as Renascence confirms on each of its ten tracks, her artistry remains intact. Sylla, however, was terminally ill when the two began work, and he died in 2013. His daughter Binetou finished the album, sharing production chores with arranger François Bréant.
Renascence certainly rewards the long wait; it is a terrific record on all counts. The first thing longtime fans will notice is that Kouyaté's contralto has become deeper and even more powerful than when she became famous in Africa three decades ago. Kouyaté was born in 1959 in southwestern Mali. She grew up immersed in the music of her Mandé people. Her father, a well-known balafon player, saw his daughter's potential when she was a child; her mother was a singer. When she was still a schoolgirl she sang with her uncle Mady Sylla Kouyaté's band, the Apollos, in Bamako. Captivated by the Malian capital's music scene, she moved there after completing school. In Bamako, she married a prominent singer of jeliya, a traditional Mandé genre. Kouyaté studied jeliya vocal techniques and its repertoire of praise songs and historical narratives.
Preferring to sing for private and public events, she didn't make studio recordings. She did, however, release "cassette locales" recorded during her recitals. As musicologist Lucy Durán has explained, a "cassette locale" differs from published music cassettes and other commercial recordings. They are one-off recordings of a performance that serve as a kind of curriculum vita: they offer, as Durán says, "a kind of aural portrait of a person and his/her family, friends, genealogy, and great deeds." The cassette locale also "is one way in which a jeli [griot] can seek out new patrons or enhance existing relationships with patrons."
Although cassettes locales are not made for the market, copies often do end up there. That's what happened with Mayomba. Recorded during a 1980 performance in Abidjan, it caught the ears of a couple of rich businessmen in Bamako who became patrons, and generous ones at that, giving Kouyaté cash, cars, and an airplane. (One of her well-heeled fans subsidized her 1983 album, Balassama /Sarama.) Kouyaté made four cassettes locales, which, although popular in Mali, went unheard outside West Africa. She did perform abroad, in Europe and in the US; in 1989, she got rave reviews from critics when she appeared on Broadway in the revue "Africa Oyé." Although record companies were eager to sign her, she rejected all offers. But in 1999, she cut Kita Kan, and three years later, Biriko, both for Sterns Africa, with Ibrahima Sylla as producer.
When she still was young, Kouyaté was recognized in West Africa as a ngara, a supreme exponent of jeliya who projects an aura of power and majesty. Men and women can be ngara. For the latter, the honorific usually is bestowed on older singers, and, although it is meant to honor great artistry, it also carries some gender-based associations, not all of them positive.
Ngara, to again cite Lucy Durán, "embraces a multitude of musical and non-musical attributes, including knowledge of Mandé history, genealogy and musical repertoires; skill, confidence and authority in performance, lineage, destiny, the power to make things happen inexplicably, moral behaviour, and a character that is fearless, abrasive … yet humble."
But, given the strong association between women and sorcery in Mandé culture, a ngara also may be seen as a disruptive, even un-Islamic figure, since her talent often is attributed to her being possessed by a jinn, a magical spirit. A jelimuso, or female jeliya singer, becomes a ngara when she demonstrates the ability to induce powerful emotional effects. Because of the strong, even unruly emotions Kouyaté elicited from her listeners – some seemed intoxicated, others swooned or even fainted – she came to be called "La Dangereuse."
The ideal ngara voice is resonant, with a clear tone. But it is not pretty. It can have a rough texture, and even an androgynous quality. In Kouyaté's mature voice, you hear all these qualities. She is commanding and authoritative, and if you didn't know her gender, you might well think you were listening to a man.
Renascence, recorded in Bamako and Paris, comprises 10 tracks written by Kouyaté. As on the two earlier albums she made with Sylla, the arrangements mix traditional Mandé instrumentation (balafon, ngoni, kora) with acoustic and electric guitars, electric bass, and keyboards programmed to sound like a string section and sometimes like a flute or horn. The polyrhythms, generally two beats played against tripled beats, are insistent but supple, providing Kouyaté with a flexible foundation for her singing, which, even on the less than ideal medium of the compact disc, exudes the extraordinary quality that earned her ngara status.
As a griot, Kandia Kouyaté is an heir to an ancient tradition of oral historians who recount Mandé history and genealogy, and who sing praise songs about revered figures from the distant and more recent past. On "Koala Boumba" she recounts the epic journey of her ancestors from Guinea to Mali. On "Mali Ba," Kouyaté exhorts Malians to remember the anti-colonial struggles of their forbears and to build a better nation today.
"Mogoya Douman" is a praise song for one of her patrons, Seydou Sidibé, whom she hails as a father figure for Malians at home and abroad. On "Sadjougoulé," she thanks everyone – her patrons, friends, children, and fans – whose support she says helped her recover from her health crisis. And, one might add, got her to where she could, after a decade-plus of silence, make a record as beautifully crafted and passionate as Renascence. - George de Stefano
Reference: "Ngaraya: Women and musical mastery in Mali" by Lucy Durán From the Bulletin of School of Oriental and African Studies (2007)
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