Renascence by Kandia Kouyate
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cd cover Kandia Kouyate
Renascence (Stern's Music)
cdRoots Code: st-1126

The Mandé art of jeliya carries a long and complex tradition of fine distinctions and endless debates about the qualities that earn its hereditary poets, musicians and soothsayers the highest accolades and honorifics. But on the great jelimusolu (female singers) of our time, there is near-unanimity regarding Kandia Kouyaté: she is a ngara. More than a skilled singer, a ngara is the extraordinary artist who possesses what many would say is a paranormal aura of majesty.

   


"Koala Bumba" (excerpt)


"Mali Ba" (excerpt)


"Kassi Doundo" (excerpt)


"Magoya Douman" (excerpt)

From the CD notes:
The Mandé art of jeliya carries a long and complex tradition of fine distinctions and endless debates about the qualities that earn its hereditary poets, musicians and soothsayers the highest accolades and honorifics. But on the great jelimusolu (female singers) of our time, there is near-unanimity regarding Kandia Kouyaté: she is a ngara. More than a skilled singer, a ngara is the extraordinary artist who possesses what many would say is a paranormal aura of majesty.

Born in 1959 in Kita, an ancient city in south-western Mali that has bred many important musicians, Kandia grew up immersed in the arts and customs of the Mandé people. Her father was a celebrated player of the bala (xylophone), and he recognised his daughter's talent for singing when she was a child. Insisting, however, that she receive a modern education, he enrolled her in a Catholic mission school where all instruction was in French. While excelling in mathematics she continued to sing at family gatherings. When her father became ill and could no longer work, she had to do what she could to support the family, so she left school, having completed eight years, and went to the Malian capital, Bamako. There, at the age of 16, she joined a wedding band that presented a mix of traditional and contemporary, local and foreign repertoires. With her regal beauty and a strong contralto that belied her tender age, Kandia lofted the band's popularity and drew the attention of the most important musicians and music patrons in the city and in the country.

Two years after her arrival in Bamako, Kandia married a prominent jeli from Kayes, and it was in his home on the banks of the Senegal River that she undertook the serious study of jeliya – its vocal technique and its canon of proverbs, praises, poems and songs – under the tutelage of her mother-in-law. On a visit to her brother-in-law in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 1980, she gave a private recital that was recorded and circulated around West Africa on cassette. As her reputation spread, invitations to perform at private and public events mounted, and so did her rewards. In addition to cash and gold, wealthy patrons gave her new cars, and one placed a light aircraft at her exclusive disposal. She also earned an epithet, La Dangereuse, from reports that when she sang many listeners felt dizzy and some fainted.

With that kind of success, Kandia saw no reason to make records. She allowed more cassettes-locales to be taped and marketed, but despite their popularity in Mali, they didn't travel beyond West Africa. The singer, however, did. Well-connected Malian émigrés brought her to France for concerts, and in 1987 she was one of a select group of Mandé jelew that participated in a London festival of royal court music from around the world. In 1989 and '90 she appeared in the USA as a star of the package tour called Africa Oyé. Record companies offered her contracts, but she turned them all down. Her most ardent suitor was the Senegalese record producer Ibrahima Sylla. She resisted, he persisted, and eventually he got the opportunity to work with her when the popular Guinean jeli Sékouba Bambino Diabaté invited her to sing a duet with him for his album Kassa (Sterns 1997). That experience convinced her of how much she could do with a good producer in a modern recording studio, but another two years passed before she and Sylla made her first full album for international release on CD.

Kita Kan (Sterns 1999) was a triumph. Produced in Paris, it was unlike any prior album of jeliya. In addition to the traditional Mandé instruments – kora, ngoni, bala, gita and djembé – the exquisite arrangements employed electric guitars in several pieces, horns in others, and, in three songs of breath-taking splendour, a string orchestra. In each setting, and in various styles, Kandia Kouyaté was in full command of her art, her voice resonant and her delivery supple and purposeful. Kita Kan was (and still is), as the British music magazine fRoots put it, “the celebratory showcase of a true diva.”

It was followed three years later by the equally impressive Biriko (Sterns 2002). Working with Sylla and a somewhat smaller number of musicians this time in Abidjan and Paris, Kandia again enlarged her repertoire and stylistic range, singing one song accompanied only by a pair of acoustic guitars, bringing the percussion forward for dance numbers, and here and there using mixed supporting voices to marvellous effect. According to the BBC, Biriko “pulses with integrity and passion, and exudes a deep, reassuring strength.”

Kandia's next recordings were for two albums entitled Mandekalou: The Art and Soul of the Mande Griots. It had long been Ibrahima Sylla's ambition to bring the greatest living Mandé jelew together to celebrate the history and culture of the Mandé people, and this he accomplished in 2004. Among the 20 singers and instrumentalists who gathered in Bamako were Sékouba Bambino Diabaté, Kasse Mady Diabaté, Bako Dagnon, Djelimady Tounkara, Djessou Mory Kanté, and, of course, Kandia Kouyaté.

Shortly after that grand summit meeting, Kandia suffered a stroke. Her recovery was slow and difficult, and for seven years she hardly spoke or sang. Even after regaining her strength she considered herself retired. By that time Ibrahima Sylla was in failing health, but he had not lost his ardour for her voice or his awe of her aura, and so in 2011 he visited her home in Bamako and convinced her to return to the recording studio. Lamentably, he did not live to complete the album. He died in 2013, and his daughter Binetou finished the project together with François Bréant, who had worked with Sylla on such recording landmarks as Salif Keita's Soro (Sterns 1987) and Thione Seck's Orientation (Sterns 2005).

“This new album was made only because of Sylla,” says Kandia. “I had been ill and Sylla was gravely ill, but he was always there [in the studio], encouraging me. He asked me to sing everything I knew, everything that was in my head. I said 'I know nothing. I've forgotten everything.' But he insisted. 'Tomorrow it will come back,' he said.”

And it did. Her voice, darker and richer than when it first carried her to fame more than 30 years ago, has an authority that arises from a very deep well of wisdom and spirit. It is the voice of a true ngara. Renascence is Kandia's resounding declaration of personal and artistic rebirth.

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