Nâ Hawa Doumbia’s La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol. 3 is the first release for the Awesome Tapes From Africa label, which started as a blog that opened up the sounds of the African continent to those outside of it. La Grande Cantatrice is an Ivory Coast import, originally appearing as a long-since out-of-print vinyl from 1982. The release is a fantastic start for Awesome Tapes From Africa, which begins its African sound exploration with Doumbia’s lilting voice leading the way.
Doumbia’s vocal gently swings to the didadi rhythm, popular in the Wassoulou region from which she originated. Backed by kamale ngoni (a type of harp from West Africa), harmonious guitars and light percussion, Doumbia’s singing is gentle and melodic. But beneath the smooth surface are lyrics that reflect the plight of the younger generation of West Africans in the 1980s. From women’s rights to the struggles of refugees, Doumbia’s words are not as soft as her singing might suggest.
The layers of twangy harp and guitar, bongos and punchy electric bass highlight the vocal rhythms on “Ko Ro Dia,” the first and longest track on La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol. 3. “Dan Te Dinye La” begins with a raspy “cha-chicka-cha” casaba rhythm and bongo beat, with tumbling guitar lines, lifted up by Doumbia’s belt that makes the song more uplifting than the urgent “Koro Ro Dia.” A slower, repeating rhythm section filled with guitar, piano, bongos and bass introduces the steady, longer opening note Doumbia calls out on “Danaya,” a more relaxed tune than the rest. “Kungo Sogoni” employs billowing strings from the kamale ngoni, harsh hits on the bongos, soft piano and harmonies from the guitar that evoke feelings of strength and perseverance in combination with Doumbia’s bold voice, a boldness that persisted throughout her long-lasting musical career.