Nahawa Doumbia Kanawa
Awesome Tapes from Africa
Review by Bruce Miller
Like a number of labels devoted to (re)issuing music in the west that was otherwise tricky to track down, Awesome Tapes from Africa began life as a blog. Since 2006, the site has been devoted to digital cassette uploads from anywhere on the continent recorded at any time. Tracks were typically downloadable individually, too, so alongside Matsuli Music, Voodoo Funk, and Sahel Sounds- all “sharity” blogs that turned into record and merch labels- ATFA became part of an early 21st century reappraisal of older sounds that had for the most part yet to hit western ears. The 'Awesome Tapes' blog was unconcerned with genre, time period, or recording quality. If it existed on a tape and was from somewhere on the African continent, blog and label owner Brian Shimkovitz would upload it, so long as he had a copy. Here was a place to download home-duped Somali big-band funk from the early 1980s, Ewe drumming from Ghana’s Volta region, Ethiopian synth-pop. South African 90s-era disco, or perhaps a youth choir from Namibia. At some point, Shimkovitz recognized sounds begging for broader attention, hence the decision to start releasing some of the blog’s finds on vinyl, CD, and, of course, cassette tape.
Among the artists who have benefitted from all this is Nahawa Doumbia, a singer from Mali’s extraordinarily musical Wassoulou region who has been releasing records for nearly 40 years. She’s also been the focus of two other ATFA releases, recordings that show off her voice over solo acoustic guitar as well as larger bands that combine traditional instruments with electric ones. Yet, with Kanawa, which comes out January of 2021, the label is releasing brand new music from this West Africa treasure.
And not surprisingly, it induces surrender. Doumbia’s voice has only gained power with age. Just note how she sails over the snaking guitar-based repetition that is “Foliwilen.” “Blonda Yirini” again pits her voice over an acoustic guitar, where she traffics in short, pointed declarations, until an n’goni, a bass, karignan (metal scraper), and backing vocals appear, tugging the music onto the dance floor. Track after track reveals a variety of ways to get lost in the music’s pulse, some of them more overtly pop-related than others. Yet, the balance never falters.
Lyrically, Doumbia speaks to what she has been witnessing in her home country: the treacherous flights of young people to Europe, the struggle for Malians to find employment and build their own country, and a denouncement of the fundamentalist horrors that have ransacked the country’s northern regions in recent years. Ultimately, she’s arguing that leaving Mali works against the country’s future, no matter the current issues.
In some ways, Doumbia hasn’t changed. In the notes to her first LP, 1981’s La Grande Cantatrice Malienne, she expressed her desire for the listener to fully engage with what she has to say. 40 years later, that is still her concern. Yet, once again, she’s married these messages to a voice as confident as it is authoritative and draped it over a set of grooves so potent once can easily get lost in them. In short, Kanawa shows us why she’s one of the most important singers to come from this musically-rich, landlocked nation. - Bruce Miller