Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

THE SUMU CULTURE: WEDDING SINGERS IN MALI Helen Webb BA Mus Ethnomusicology

Singing lessons with Helen Webb                Wedding Music An Anú

 

I’ll be discussing here, a section of the music business, as it exists in Mali. Sumu singers are mainly women singers known as “jelimuso”(female form of jeli) from the musician caste of the Mande region of West Africa.

The jeli (male) belong to “nyamakala” this is an ancient artisan caste of smith, leatherworkers and reciters of praise and the Koran. These artisans are a section of Mande society, which encompasses areas of Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gambia and Guinea Bissau. There are three main cultural groups and these groups tend to correspond to the three main Mande languages, which are Mandinka, Maninka, and Bamana. The music of these three main groups is different with relation to the instruments used, the melodies and tuning of the instruments, and the music played. There is some repertoire that all Mande people will know and have various versions of. These are pieces like “Sunjata” which is about Sunjata Keita who was the ancient emperor of the region. Or “Lambang” which is a song praising the jeli and their art.

Since the Independence of Mali there has been a notable increase in the popularity of the jelimuso.   This began with the Maninka, Bamana and Jula in Mali, Guinea and Ivory Coast and has now come to include Wassoulu women singers as well. These women have their place within traditional activities like baby blessings and wedding s as mentioned whereas the male “jelis” can be found playing in the nightclubs and bars, places not considered so suitable for a woman. The younger women in Mande society identify these sumu singers with a blending of the old traditions and the new way of being in society.

There is a concept among the Mande nyamakala, of supernatural power called ngaraya. There is some dispute about whether the jelimusos are capable of using this power in their performances, as they are not male. Jelimusos are now more and more outwardly claiming their right to be possessors of this power. The jeli claim that true ‘Ngaraya’, must include the recitation of the oral history (only permitted to be done by men):

Bakari Soumano, jelikuntigi (Chief of Griots of Mali) 1992-2003. Said that women’s power in society was not as great as men’s because when Sunjata Keita (founder and Emperor of the Mali Empire c.1235) met with his generals to write down the charter of Mande society, there were no women present.

There was a pact between Sunjata and his general Tiramakan… but women were not present. Sunjata, Tiramakan, Fakoli (Doumbia) and Sira Makan Ba Koita divided up the tasks between them. Sunjata wanted fame and reputaion, Tiramakan wanted victory. That’s why Sunjata took the glory. (At the pact) They agreed on the four ngaraw. This was the very first sumu (A ritual or informal celebration with music – and women should have been there. Sunjata’s sister gave Sunjata the secret so he could win the battle, but women were out of the pact. When they say “n’se” (a phrase with which women return greetings), it means “we have given you the power”. Mba (the phrase with which men return greetings) means, “my mother brought me here”. It is women who have the power. Let me give you an example: at the kamablon, 27 men and one woman are in the hut, but it’s the woman who runs the show.

Ngaraya is to know the full recitation, and to know the explanation of the recitation. This comes with age, because when you’re young, you don’t have the authority to ask questions … Women know the stories of Mande history as well as men. How could it be otherwise? They are always there when the men recite them. They sing the choruses, those choruses are the pillars of the histories. They remind the men about which bits to sing next. The only thing is, they are not allowed to take the spoken word in front of men. But they can sing it. (Interview with author, Bamako, 1996)

(Duran 2006)

 

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali 

‘Ngara’, a term used to describe the possessors of this supernatural power, is used mostly to refer to older male musicians. The ‘jelimusos’, however are beginning to describe themselves as having this power. This is not always well accepted among the male jeli.

Song, and the voice are gendered female in Mande languages. The spoken recitation that forms part of some songs and traditional ceremonies is called ‘Tariku’. ‘Tariku’ is gendered male in the Mande languages. ‘Tariku’ is a skill valued more than song. The women singers are expected to stick to traditional formats in their musical performances, and the males generally expect to be able to have more expressive freedom. Women are criticized for their independent life styles as sumu singers, and for being too modern and focusing too much on money to be genuine ‘ngara’.

The ‘jelimusos’ roughness and often penetrating quality in the vocal sound is connected with ‘ngara’ and it is a quality which is appreciated in Mande culture. This quality is mentioned in Lucy Duran’s reflections upon the male influence on historical descriptions of the ‘jeli’:

Where, in the now substantial literature on Mande oral tradition, is the Jelimuso? Many scholars do not specifically mention women at all, placing their descriptions of jelis’ activities in the masculine gender (e.g. Innes, Johnson). The informants for the published versions of epics have without exception been men, but no comment is made as to why this should be, reflectiong, no doubt, the male perspective of the writers.

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

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Even Camara, in his extensive anthropological study of jelis, barely talks of women, though his passing remarks are telling. For example (with regard to women at the court of Almamy Samory Toure): “elles chantent pendant que leurs maris font la musique… elles ont des activites specifique: “elles surveillent les femmes toujours nombreuses du roi” (Camara p.220). Camara also cites a Maninka phrase used to praise an appealing femaile voice: “Jelimuso ni ka nawanane” (“this Jelimuso is rough”). Cette image (difficile a traduire) signifie…que la griotte a quelque chose de ruguex dans le timbre de sa voi, ce que les Malinke apprecie beaucoup” (Camara, p.250), but this tantalising glimpse of a Maninka aesthetic concerning women’s voices is not further pursued.

(Duran 2006)

The subject of ‘Ngara’ and which artist possesses it, seems relevant to the rise of the jelimusos in the Sumu scene. They appear to be claiming their power as females in an Islamic society and linking this to the ancient unseen power of the nyamakala, and this power was not known previously to be claimed by women or recognised by society as being something a woman could posess.

 Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

The sumu singers are known locally as “vedettes” or stars since the main language in Mali is French, the country having been colonised by the French until the early 60s. These Sumu singers were part of an established tradition existing before colonisation by the French and they are still very much admired and appreciated locally. Many of these women have, over the years, achieved fame nationally. Their art is generally less valued in the world arena than locally in Mali where they have a large audience which is mostly female.

The Sumu singers have a strong following in Mali, particularly among the women, as their music is sympathetic to, and makes comment upon the lives of married women. The art of the jelimuso is greatly valued among the elite in Mali and among the general public, they were mentioned by Mali’s first lady Adam Ba Konare in her book “Dictionaire des femmes celebres du Mali”

Some of the women of this proud and ancient tradition of jelimusos

were documented by Mali’s first lady Adam Ba Konare’s 1993 in the contraversial publication “Dictionaire des femmes celebres du Mali”

Dictionnaire des femmes célèbres du Mali. Bamako: Editions Jamana, 1993. (520p.)” (Duran ’95)

 Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

The organization of weddings is done by the women in Mali, so the “vedettes” are a well established traditional part of these events. Weddings take place mainly in the cities, and on Sunday afternoons in Bamako, Mali’s capitol city.

Sumu singers are engaged along with male musicians (“jelimuso” do not play instruments traditionally in Mali, although Toumani Diabati the world famous kora virtuoso for one, now teaches women kora at his music college in Mali)

The repertoire of the “vedettes” includes their own compositions, and also comes from the ancient repertoire of traditional wedding songs and “jelya”(the music and recitations of the jelis).

Mali’s “vedettes” also sing in concert halls, on TV, radio, in local media, and they record their music, thereby promoting their work and gaining more bookings and cassette album sales. Cassettes are still used as the main media for music in Mali and the sumu singers rely on cassette sales to increase their incomes. Sometimes jeli singers are commissioned to record music for a particular patron. Traditionally their income has come from patrons who support their work, and have a jeli associated with their family.

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

These Sumu singers were described by Lucy Duran in 1995 as “super women”. They are paid more highly than male musicians locally, and in my opinion, this is one reason their work has remained mainly local, they have sustained a local livelihood, a way of life suited to women whereas travel and the life of an international musician might be too challenging for many women in a Muslim society . In the 1970s and 80s political changes forced many male musicians to move away from Mali, as work became hard to find, and because of this many male musicians such as Salif Keta and Toumani Diabati travelled further afield. Their work spread to Europe and they became a part of the now well established “World Music” industry. Women’s lives in Mali have always been more limited than men’s because of the main religion, Islam, which discourages female privelages in society. For example, until recently a woman could not own property. Because of these societal factors, striking out alone to promote one’s music abroad was not an option commonly available to women, and is still relatively rare.

The first generation of these singers to be recorded were on the Styllart record label in the 80s. These included Monkontafe Sako, Fanta Damba, and Sira Mory Diabate. In the 90s there were Ami koita, Tata Bambo Kouyate and Kandia Kouyate, recorded by Stern. These singers are generally considered the greatest “jelimusulu” (plural of jelimuso) of their time.

Marriage festivities mainly take place on Sundays in Bamako, Mali’s capital. They are often the main source of income for musicians. The “jelis” accompany the women in this traditional wedding repertoire. The male musicians always take second billing to the women and the women are often well known locally, male musicians have often become more known on the world stage. The women are not generally recognised or promoted on the world stage probably because, as mentioned above, their wider development is inhibitied by cultural restrictions on women.

The sumu traditional songs and ideas about marriage have impowered women and have helped gain local female audiences. Sumu singers also tend to promote themselves on TV and local media. Many of them use backing tracks which means they make the male musicians uneccessary for these performances as musical backing. Local media is utilised to assist in getting live work and they promote cassettes for local sales.

Some of the weddings repertoire is only performed by women, some are classics and are also sung by men in the dance bands such as “Sarah” written by Siramoni Diabate etc, known for her skill in bridging the gap between the traditional local scene and the more modern jeli music. Her cassette was released posthumously.

Now in Mali many Wassoulu women are playing the same types of roles as the jelimusos. Their popularity is growing in Mali and they are reaching wider and wider audiences. Lucy Duran mentions the issue of Global versus local popularity:

While global versus local “popularity” or commercial success does not, of course, signify that one is better than another, it does highlight the need for insights into why certain artists are treasured within the country, while remaining unknown by wider audiences. This is very much the case for Mali’s women singers, who enjoy popularity at home on a scale that is unprecedented elsewhere in Africa, and yet they are poorly represented on the world music scene, their importance ignored or misunderstood (Duran ’70)

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

The following quote from Lucy Duran points out the contradiction emphasized above. The popularity of these women on the home stage is not being exploited in a business sense on the larger world stage.

My estimate of artists features on Top Etoile, a weekly (since 1992) television programme showcasing new talent, is that women account for between 60 to 80 percent of singers. With this unprecedented popularity, what force does the ideal of ngara hold for them? How does it affect the choices that they make during their performing careers in terms of their repertoire, choice of instruments, performance, persona and lifestyle?

(Duran 2006)

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

 

Concepts of power and who is holding it, the gender politics of Mali, and among the Jeli themselves, all play a part in the story of this local culture, and female dominated section of the music industry. For this scene to exist in a patriarchal environment such as Mali, and indeed in the professional environment of a male dominated Malian ‘world music’ scene, is in itself complex and seems to link to gender power struggles within an Islamic country, (in that, the sumu singers appear to be voicing the frustrations of the women who hire them), the concept of local versus global industry, and the mystical power of music.

 

Bibliography and References Cited.

 

Charry, Eric S; 2000 Traditional and modern music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa: Chicago: Chicago Press.

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

Counsel, Graeme; 2006, Mande popular music and cultural policies in West Africa. Melbourne: The University of Melbourne.

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

Duran, Lucy; 2006, Ngaraya: Women and musical mastery in Mali Bulletin of SOAS, 70, 3, 569-602. London: School of Oriental and African Studies.

  • Duran, Lucy; 1995, Jelimuso-The Superwomen of Malian Music.
  • Liz Gunner & Graham Furniss (ed.) Power, Marginality and African Oral Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, pp. 197-210
  • Websites
  • BBC News, “Mali protests against womens law” (viewed on Jan 24th 2011)
  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8216568.stm

 

Deutsch Welle Article (viewd on Jan 24th 2011)

ttp://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,5323121,00.html)

 

Wikipedia, Women in Mali (viewed on Jan 23rd 2011)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Mali

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali

Female Vocalists Wedding Singers The Sumu Culture Mali