I must have been about seven or eight months pregnant when I wandered into the old Folkways store in Paddington some time in 1994, because Allmusic tells me that the music that grabbed my attention as soon as I entered the store — The Wassoulou Sound: Women of Mali — was released in March ’94. My son, AM was born in June that year, and after that happened, I wasn’t doing a whole lot of music-shopping.
I don’t remember being pregnant when I first heard the spacious rhythms and throaty vocals of the Wassoulou women 20 years ago, but it seems appropriate that I was, because they sing about the concerns of women such as fertility and childbirth.
Well, that would have made a sweet introduction to my first video, if it were true, but when I started researching for this post, the story fell apart in several places.
First, according to Sterns, the album was released in 1991, long before I was pregnant. They should know, it was on their label. Maybe I didn’t buy it until I was pregnant in 1994, but it seems unlikely. I don’t remember, although I do vividly remember the impact the music had on me that day.
More significantly, I can’t find out if Malian women actually do sing about ‘fertility and childbirth’. This statement, which I found (without citations) on Wikipedia, has been repeated all over the internet. It could well be true, because the women featured on the album, like Oumou Sangare and Coumba Sidibe, do sing about issues that affect women, such as polygamy and forced marriage, but I couldn’t find anything about childbearing or fertility anywhere. I don’t have time to keep looking. I think 8 pages of search engine results is enough research for a weekly post, so you will just have to accept that the first two paragraphs of my post are plausible, but fiction.
I did, however, find out other interesting facts about Wassoulou music. To very broadly generalise, it’s the music of people who just like singing, in contrast to the musicians who are from traditional, griot families. It’s music in which youth and unmarried women challenge social norms. Wassoulou singers and musicians describe themselves as birds: konow. There are parallels between the spread and meaning of Wassoulou music, and the spread and meaning of the beautiful Malian mud cloth bogolanfini — hence my use of mudcloth to illustrate this post. You too can read all this and more in Lucy Duran’s article in the British Journal of Ethnomusicology, long may it bring fully referenced information to the interwebs!
It doesn’t matter when I first listened to the songbirds of Wassoulou. It doesn’t really matter how ‘feminist’ they are. (Interesting aside: Malian musician Mady Keita asserts that they aren’t viewed as feminist in Mali because they are quite cautious in how they present the issues in their songs). Their voices are glorious and I have loved the open, interwoven melodies of the Sahel ever since I first heard them in Folkways. That’s enough for me.
After the epiphany of discovering Wassoulou music, and after becoming a mum in 1994 (which I definitely have evidence for), the rest of the 90s were a bit of a blur.
Except for Sheila Chandra.
No words needed.
By the turn of the century I’d got used to motherhood, and then single parenthood, and was starting to wonder about music beyond my CD collection. By then I’d basically been only listening to (mostly African) World music for more than a decade and I thought it was time to revisit my own Anglo-celtic roots. In my case, this did not mean a return to 70s rock or 80s disco, but a rediscovery of folk music. I even started going to live gigs. With AM.
That’s how I found Triantan, who specialise in traditional Irish and Scottish songs, often sung in Gaelic. This one tackles the age-old theme of controlling mothers, so it’s hardly feminist, but at least the hero is a loving husband, and his wife saves the day.
I like it not so much for the story, as for the passion and power of Judy Pinder’s voice. But to compensate for the demonising of King Willie’s mother, (and I ask you, if Willie’s bride knew so much about undoing witchcraft, may not she, too, have been a witch?) I bring you English folk singer Frankie Armstrong, who tells a different story of marriage.
Although I first heard Frankie somewhere in the early 2000s, this song has a very early feminist feel to it, in its call for women to have the freedom to have their lives as they want, not as society dictates.
In the early 21st century sexism is still alive and well, but in Australia at least, women also have many more freedoms, thanks to generations of women who fought for equal pay and equal rights. So I conclude this post in the spirit of fun and liberation; the kind of fun Madeleine (of the song above) discovered after freed from a stultifying marriage. I don’t know what she’s singing about so the lyrics may be completely inappropriate for my themes, but let’s party with Rita Ribeiro. (if you can translate for me, please feel free to do so in the comments).