In Bamako, it's not unusual to hear the august voice of Kandia Kouyaté blasting from a radio or cassette player. But the chances are, the music won't be coming from any commercially available release. More likely, it's a coveted cassette recording made at the homes of a wealthy patron. From such patrons, Kouyaté has received gold bars, stacks of money, automobiles, and on one memorable occasion, an airplane so that she could fly to the patron's village and sing for him. No surprise that the hardscrabble life of hawking cassettes, performing in halls and nightclubs, let alone touring internationally, has mostly held little appeal for her. Kouyaté is what Malians call an ngara--a master musician and historian, fearless social critic, and keeper of occult secrets--rather than a mere vedette, or pop star.
Ironically, Kouyaté got her professional start singing in her uncle's Manding-pop group, the Apollo Band, which was all the rage at Bamako street parties in the '70s. Although her father was a Manding griot, and her mother a singer of Bambara and Fula music, Kouyaté never had any encouragement at home in her pursuit of music. They preferred that she stay in school, and would actually beat her when they knew she had been out singing. But her enormous musical talent was evident early on, and in her hometown of Kita--one of the richest centers of griot culture in Mali--musical opportunities abounded.
Kouyaté married at 18 to a griot who died four years later. In Kayes, her late husband's hometown, she then fell under the wing of her mother-in-law Tapa Soumano, a wise mentor figure who taught her, as she told British writer and musicologist Lucy Duran, "the secret arts of the griot." Kouyaté has a longstanding reputation for spending time with elders, particularly older griots from the culturally rich towns of Kita and Kayes. This is why her performances have such cultural depth, and one reason why she fared so extraordinarily well in the world of griot patronage. The other reason, of course, is her magnificent contralto voice, huge and warm, capable of majestic certainty and brooding thoughtfulness.
In 1988, Kandia toured internationally as part of Africa Oyé, a variety showcase of African traditional music, but the experience did not whet her appetite to jump into the "world music" game, and a decade went by before those outside the Manding music inner circle heard from her again.
In 1999, Kandia at last produced an international release, Kita Kan. West Africa's preeminent producer Ibrahima Sylla organized the effort with guitarist Ousmane Kouyaté, of Salif Keita fame, arranging the music. The two delve into the funky Bambara pentatonic music, unusual territory for a griotte. There is a playful dash of the breezy, soukous-flavored Manding pop that more commercially minded griottes like Ami Koita and Nainy Diabaté have championed. Kita Kan is a class act in every way.
Kouyaté's lyrics include obligatory griot praise, but part of the role of an ngara is to speak truth bravely, even when it flies in the face of power. In that spirit, Kandia addresses subjects like the tragedy of arranged marriages, where love is thwarted and women sold into effective slavery by their elders. Since recording Kita Kan, Kouyaté has participated in an album of songs condemning female genital mutilation, still sadly common in Mali. This is an extremely controversial subject, but Kouyaté does not mince her words. "Let's say, 'No, we refuse,'" she urges on her track. In early 2002, Kandia returned to the studio with Sylla, Ousmane Kouyaté and her incomparable traditional ensemble to make what may be her most fully realized recording, Biriko. She also embarked on her first ever United States tour that year. Sadly, Kandia suffered a stroke in late 2004, and it appears unlikely that she will be able to record or perform again. Banning Eyre, Courtesy Afropop Worldwide: www.afropop.org