Women of Wassoulou

When a genre emerges from the very soils of its namesake, it is impossible to separate the cultural roots from the grainy soul of the music. From the ‘divas of Wassoulou’ to the fusion of Malian customs with the world of modern music, the artists become extensions of the rich musical heritage from which they source their sound. 

Music and culture

Wassoulou culture is renowned for the melding of traditional Malian instruments like the harp and djembe with earthy tones of strong female vocalists. The women that became the forefront of this musical movement use their platforms to interweave social and political issues into every verse through conscious and compassioned lyricism. 

Oumou Sangaré, ‘The Songbird of Wassoulou’

The sensual, smooth sonic soundscape these women build with their smoky vocals integrates their mother tongue and traditional instruments, carefully curated and reminiscent of American blues. Wassoulou is located south of the Niger River, transecting the border of Guinea, Ivory Coast and Mali, thus the genre is often compared to popular blues sounds which was famously deeply influenced by the music of West Africa transported to their shores during the slave trade.  

Pushing forward social issues

Wassoulou is an extension of how blending cultural traditions and lyricism makes music a mouthpiece for non-explicitly voicing concerns, especially those impacting the youth in West African communities. Oumou Sangaré is renowned for using her platform as an iconic Wassoulou musician to create education and career opportunities for young people within the industry. Widely regarded as ‘The Songbird of Wassoulou’, she began her musical career out of necessity, dropping out of school to sing in the streets for money. Now, her impassioned and spiritual talent has earned her a Grammy and placed her as a cultural ambassador for the region. 

On tracks like ‘Kamelemba’ and ‘Mogoya’, the raw talent of Sangaré bleeds into every note she sings. However, it is enriching to know how traditional Wassoulou dances influence her tone and melody, and how the issues she experienced in her youth permeate her songs to elevate social issues on gender, child marriage and wider inequality in the region. 

An instrument meant “only for men”

However, Sanagré did not fly alone, with a new generation of kono (‘songbirds’) reaching her heights as the neo-traditional style of Wassoulou began to challenge the caste of Malian music. Fatoumata Diawara wove between Parisian streets acting and singing until she was invited to return to her birthplace to support Sangaré on her world tour with Dee Dee Bridgewater. Diawara’s tones implore you to lean in, to hear the notes of her own rebellion as she plucks the strings of her acoustic guitar, a “wonderful and daring thing” to do as she embraces this instrument meant “only for men”. Whilst ‘Nterini’ from the album Fenfo is sung in Bamana to refrain from disseminating her material through colonial languages like English, she also magnifies her outreach through collaboration with mainstream musicians like Damon Albarn. Featuring on Song Machine with the Gorillaz in the track ‘Désole’, Diawara layers her experiences from her time in France through the lingual melody of the language over her traditional Malian stylism to create a stunning and widely well received single. 

Sharing stories through song

The intersection or urban evolution and gender representation within the Wassoulou genre, in a local and global setting, carved out a space for Malian music in popular culture. By propelling female vocalists to be the mouthpieces for challenging identity and social presentation in Mali, these women share the stories of their homeland through song, and in turn are revolutionising the areas in which they found their voice.

Check out more women of Wassoulou here: Coumba Sidibe, Oumou Sangaré, Sali Sidibe, Nahawa Doumbia and Issa Bagayogo.

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