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Na Hawa Doumbia
La Grande Cantatrice Malienne

Awesome Tapes from Africa
Review by Bruce Miller


Bamako, Mali in particular and the Wassoulou region in general have produced many of the massive, landlocked nation’s most well-known names. From Oumou Sangare to Ali Farka Toure, there’s been no shortage of international exports that have not only put the country on the map for many, but have also kicked out some of the continent’s deepest grooves. Thanks to the single-chord pulse of the hunter’s harp, the n’goni, and the soku, as well as the kind of call-and-response singing so obviously influential on North America’s musical roots, the connections between this music and the heaviest, most trance-inducing pulses to come from the North Mississippi hill country are natural. That the guitar made its way into the region only helps make the connection that much more obvious.

Aside from Sangare, the region has been home to a number of female vocalists who have recorded some of the country’s most intense music. A single listen to the recently late Sali Sidibe’s initial release, Formidable!, from 1982, is mind-blowingly powerful. The same can be said for Mah Dambe’s earliest cassette from ’89, as well as Inna Baba Coulibaly’s mid-70s work with Farka Toure on guitar or the first cassette releases by Moolobali Traore. All of this allows Na Hawa Doumbia’s first album, initially released on Ivory Coast’s AS label in ’81 and now reissued on ATFA, a place within a larger circle of hard-driving singers, all of whom started out recording with guitarists and/or n’goni players. Doumbia and her six-string accompanist, N’Gou Bagayoko, also share their tendency to play in what Westerner’s would call a minor-key, lending the music a sense of foreboding that the lyrics might just belie.

Whatever the case, this album, woefully brief at only six songs, demands repeated listens and one’s full attention as Doumbia, barely 20 years old and still developing into the synth-driven dance singer she would become, soars over the guitar, holding tightly to notes before dropping them into the songs’ rhythms, apparently determining tempo and tension as a result. It’s sometimes hard to believe she’s not also the guitarist here. There are no standout tracks here, such is the album’s cohesion, but the slower-than usual “Djankonia” is an excellent example of her force.


This reissue is faithful to the original LP’s cover, though it includes some updated biographical information as well as an English translation to the original back cover’s French notes. But the music cuts through any lack of information. Doumbia herself said at the time this was recorded, “I do not want to inspire either laugh or dance…” And while those words shouldn’t deter anyone from checking this record out, it does go some distance in letting one know this is deep, heavy stuff, demanding allegiance if not surrender. - Bruce Miller


Editor's note: If you want to experience her voice in a contemporary context, listen to Nahawa Doumbia's appearance on a recent recording by the French artist Ludovic Navarre, aka St Germain.

Further reading:
Oumou Sangare
Every Song Has its End: Sonic Dispatches from Traditional Mali
Sekou Bah
Hama Sankare

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