With a professional career spanning over 40 years, singer Nahawa Doumbia is one of the prominent performers of the south Malian Wassoulou style of music. A passionate advocate for peace, justice and women’s rights in her own country, the singer has also long been the voice of the Malian community living abroad and especially in France. Recorded in Salif Keita’s studio Moffou in Bamako and released on 29 January 2021 last on the Awesome Tapes from Africa label, Kanawa is Nahawa Doumbia’s much anticipated collection of new music.

Nahawa Doumbia - Kanawa (2021)
Nahawa Doumbia – Kanawa (2021)

If European record labels started distributing her music beyond her native Mali from 1987 onwards, the singer had already released several LPs and cassette tapes in the early 1980s on AS Records in the Ivory Coast. Specialising in uncovering hard to find cassette tapes originally released independently and sold by street vendors across the markets of West Africa, New-York-based DJ project, blog and now record label Awesome Tapes from Africa has helped bringing countless regional gems to the attention of a much wider audience. First re-issued in 2011, Nahawa Doumbia’s 1982 formidable La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol.3 became the first release on the new Awesome Tapes from Africa record label. Since then, the label also re-released the singer’s stripped-down 1981 début cassette in 2019.

Nahawa Doumbia’s name might not be as familiar to the general public as Oumou Sangaré or Fatoumata Diawara. Yet, her songs have featured in several high profile compilations or remixes over the years by DJs and electronic musicians in particular, all drawn to the magnetic voice and powerful rhythmic style of “the Queen of Didadi” – the traditional dance songs usually accompanied by a djembe drum.

Electronic musician Aqua Bassino for instance remixed the song Yankaw in 1999 from her 1997 eponymous album. French DJ Eric Galliano featured the song Koukou Le in his 2002 release Frederic Galliano and the African Divas. And more recently, house and nu jazz producer Ludovic Navarre sampled Koro Dia from her 1982 La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol.3 album on the 2015 St Germain.

The meaning of “Kanawa” is so simple. We see our children trying to cross the ocean all the time. I said that many of our children die in the ocean and some of them while crossing the Sahara. Some climb over the wires across the borders and they have gotten shot. We have asked them not to leave and instead stay home. But I ask them why do they leave their country? Why do they decide to go?

The title track is a plea to the Malian youth and government in an effort to slow down or stop emigration which is often seen as the only solution for many, especially when the country has been affected by several regional conflicts and coups d’état since the early 2010s.

Since her 1981 début, acoustic guitar has been a staple on the singer’s recordings. Long-time collaborator and arranger N’Gou Bagayoko returns alongside a full ensemble comprised of Sékou Marcel Coulibaly on guitar, Fassiriman Dembélé on bass, Drissa Sidibé, Cheick Oumar Koita and Mamatou Diabaté on n’goni, Halassane Sissoko on percussion, Vieux Paré on drum programming as well as Sadio Maria Sidibé and Bella Sobrega on backing vocals. Her own daughter Doussou Bagayoko also features as a vocalist on “Adjorobena”.

With voices and instruments all assuming a rhythmic role, Nahawa Doumbia and her band sustain with a beguiling brilliance a compelling swing spurred by interlocking rhythmic patterns throughout the entire album.