The Female Voice

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You either look backward or you look forward. If you look sideways, you might get lost.

The traditions of African music run back millenia. In the unfolding of history, most African cultures have relied upon tramsmission of musical history through special social structures—often the patriarchal inheritance of the cherished position of griot: musical leader, historian, and mystic. But that's a dramatic oversimplification, of course. The patriarchal role may represent a stereotype, but it's not a rule.

The role of women in African music is as varied as the cultures on the continent. But in many cases their talent as vocalists is prized as a vehicle for self-expression. They might not play the drums, but women have found many other niches. The theme of this installment is the female voice, framed in settings ranging from the ultra-traditional to the neo-futuristic. The fact that it takes center stage becomes liberating for both performer and listener.

In the culture of the Kel Tamashek, nomads of the Saharan desert, certain instruments are reserved for women. They also sing beautifully, as immediately becomes clear on the first record under review. The mostly female group known as Tartit draws upon deep roots to liven up a distinctive signature sound with traces of Arab and West African elements. Their first US release has an elemental simplicity that remains convincing in every sense of the word.

Jump ahead a millenium and you have the cultural collision between Malian vocalist Mamani Keita and British producer Marc Minelli. First and foremost—without exception—Keita's vocals sail brightly across this record. Minelli has the good sense to build his electronic architecture, loose and swinging as it is, around her crisp and well-grounded voice as a centerpiece. Keita's voice has a timeless quality that suggests ancient and modern at once; Minelli's production brings a range of styles together for this pop-jazz-electro fusion. Curious mix, interesting results.

Finally, Bill Laswell starts with the brilliant Ethiopian vocalist Gigi, whose message he framed in a virtual world of settings on her self-titled debut—and takes her apart completely. Put back together again, all the pieces that formed the original whole assume a new identity. That new entity has an undulating, gentle, reverberant nature. Completely kid-safe: no sharp parts or dangerous objects here.


This is a very mixed up world. Witness evidence direct from the miniscule but relatively well-publicized third annual Festival in the Desert, held this January in a Saharan oasis called Essakane. That's near Timbuktu, which is in Mali if you didn't know. Groups from all over the country joined like-minded spirits from France, Mauritania, Niger, and the US for three days of musical celebration. Midway through the last day, Robert Plant stepped up to sing "Whole Lotta Love." Now is that weird or what? Never mind the camel parade, the camel race, or the sand hockey. This was an experience few would forget.

The mostly female group known as Tartit performed on the first day to an eager reception. The group essentially formed in a Burkina Faso refugee camp from desperate survivors of a terrible drought and civil war. According to Mama Walet Amoumine, "We are almost all from the same family. We are cousins." They performed their first gig at the Voix des Femmes festival in Belgium and the brand new Ichichila (recorded in Mali, of course) is their first and only US release.

The nomadic Kel Tamashek from the international region around Northern Mali are also known as tuaregs, the "forsaken of God," to Arabs—but they prefer the more accurate term that emphasizes their common language. In a region where society tends to be male-dominated, Kel Tamashek women play forward and outspoken roles. Thus Tartit. Their music is built from group vocals, centered and organized by the imzad (one-stringed gourd-fiddle), tehardent (three-stringed banjo), and tindé (small wooden mortar covered with goatskin)—with plenty of well-timed clapping.

"Iya Heniya," the second track, tells the story of a woman whose husband forsakes her for a mistress. During the choruses, the higher lead voice sings straightforward, understated lines with occasional trill-like embellishments. Her call is always accompanied by a lower-pitched group response, call-and-response in its simplest and most direct form. The next song has a North African flavor, more trance-like in its square rhythms and repeated (male) chorus, more aligned with the minor harmonies that come from Arabic music. Later, an electric guitar—gasp! but wait, this is a mixed up world—emphasizes the very strong blues character that pervades much of this music. Not many chord changes, and certainly no 12-bar forms, but nevertheless a strong groove and that same sense of directly stated emotion.

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