Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song Writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

Has the music of the Jelimuso impacted gender politics in the Mande region of West Africa?

Helen Webb BA Mus Ethnomusicology

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The sumu wedding tradition of the Mande region in West Africa has a culture of wedding entertainment that is dominated by women singers who are accompanied by male musicians playing traditional music. The women perform traditional wedding songs, and have become the stars of the local music scene. I will be discussing the jelimuso here (female Griot musician), from the jeli musician caste of the Mande region of West Africa, but Wassoulu women are also more and more strongly present on the weddings scene.Women singers are currently more successful locally than male musicians, and earn much more than the men on the local scene, yet their art is less valued by the wider world market and has not been as widely exposed or promoted. These women hold influential positions on the local music scene, in a male dominated Muslim society and their following consists mainly of women. They have used their well-established platform to vocalize the feelings of women in their society in relation to marriage through the music they perform at weddings. They have a strong following among the women who hire them and attend wedding parties. Marriage festivities usually take place on Sunday in Bamako, Mali’s capital city. They are the main source of income for the musician cast of Mali known as the jeli, both male and female. The jeli are the ancient keepers of the oral traditions of the Mande Empire (circa 1230-circa 1470).

The instruments used to accompany the female wedding singers are mainly traditional jeli instruments. These are kora (a bridge harp), balafon (wooden xylophone), ngoni (oval shaped solid body lute with 3-8 strings), electric guitar, electric bass, dun dun, djembe and tama or talking drum, with the more recent addition of drum machines. There may also be female backing singers playing karinyang. Male musicians play these instruments, the only instrument played by the women is the karinyang, a metal tube with ridges, scraped by a metal rod. At weddings men traditionally play instruments while the women sing. The female voice is aesthetically preferred, and is gendered feminine in the language. This is partly why women have been able to become prominent in the area of the voice in a society where they are generally second-class citizens. Male musicians take second billing to the jelimusos who are known as “Vedettes” (local stars). This has caused male musicians to form an organization called “Association Amicale des Artistes” (Duran ’95) to protect their rights. Many of the female singers work with their musician husbands.


Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

Known locally as stars or “Vedettes” the jelimuso of the Sumu culture have been described by Lucy Duran (Duran ’95) as “superwomen” Their iconic presence is an essential part of the local weddings scene, which is the only areas where female musicians have gained a real foothold in Malian society. The society is mainly Muslim, and therefore has a male-dominated hierarchy.

Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

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)

The art of the jeli and the artistry of the jelimuso is respected and valued among the elite and among the general public:

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)

Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

The first generation of these women to be recorded were recorded by Styllart records in the 80s. These were Monkontafe Sako, Fanta Damba, Sira Mory Diabate, and then in the 90s Ami Koita, Tata Bambo Kouyate, Kandia Kouyate were recorded by Stern records. Kandia Kouyate is known for her rich contralto voice and her ability to use familiar runs and phrases from jelya (jeli’s music) and weave them into dynamic, fast, improvised passages.

Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

This extract from Graeme Councel’s thesis explains the transformation of Jeliya from mainly historical repertoire centred around praise songs for the historical ruling families of the Mande Empire, to entertainment for their present day patrons, ordinary citizens who have different requirements:

 Hence, as the griots struggled to earn an income, their role as praise-singers grew more dominant and their reliance on new benefactors more entrenched. Praise songs to their new hosts became not only a routine part of their performance, but one from
which they earned a significant amount of income. Broad knowledge of the historical repertoires receded, and griots, rather than aligning themselves to one particular family, became dependant on the generosity of a network of benefactors, hosts, and patrons. Griots grew increasingly reliant on performances at occasions such as naming days and weddings, where singing the praises of those present earned the musician additional income.
There is good evidence that griots are concentrating on songs and praises at such gatherings, and it seems likely that younger griots will have much less opportunity for historical narration. Indeed it is doubtful if some of them would have the requisite knowledge even if they had the opportunity. The griot’s public has changed; he no longer addresses himself mainly to an audience of elderly
aristocrats but to social gatherings of ordinary citizens, and the new audience demands a rather different product… (Counsel 2006, pp60-61 (Innes 1974:5))

The jelimusos have brought together the praise element of jeliya, praising their clients’ families at wedding parties, singing about the historical lineage of the Mande Empire, and they have added what amounts to social comment on the position of women, in a skillful and subtle way that seems to slip under the barriers of current gender politics and appeal greatly to the general public.

Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

One of the most celebrated Jelimusos to write about the plight of the married woman, Sira Mori Diabate of Kela, a village that is the historical and current home of many of the jelis in Mali. She, and her generation of jelimusos have all sung of women’s position in marriage. Sira Mori was very well respected for her ability to blend the traditions of jeli music with the more modern styles, and her song Sarah which is quoted below, has become a dance band standard. (Jansen ’96)

Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

Today women in Mali are legally considered to be equal to men, yet there are many very deeply established social and economic patterns of behavior within the society which make their position more challenging than that of the men (Deutsch Welle). There have been changes in the law in the last few years which have attempted to improve the situation (BBC News) but there are many disadvantages for women such as, they can marry with parental consent or special permission form a judge as young as 15 and may marry without consent at 18. Under age marriage is a problem in Mali, with some parents marrying their daughters off as young as nine. ( Wikipaedia) In August 2009 inheritance laws were strengthened in favor of women and children born out of wedlock. Many Malians were very against the law being adopted, including many uneducated and illiterate women. (BBC News)

Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

One of the most interesting aspects of the Sumu tradition is the way in which the jelimuso use song lyrics to express the frustrations often felt by Malian women about their position in the marital home, which is one of subservience and servitude to the husband’s family. These lyrics often very cleverly and diplomatically state facts about the bad treatment of married women in the home without seeming to overtly challenge the authority of the men. Sarah, a song by Sira Mori Diabate (Circa 1925-1989), a famous jelimouso from? Tells the tale of a clever woman who managed to end up with the man of her choice because he supposedly was the only one who could cure her of an illness. The following quote is from the song. This song has become a classic within Mali and was covered by male musicians and singers in Mali’s “dance band era”

SARA by Siramori Diabate


Sara’s husband said: God is inscrutable.

I feel ashamed,

I feel ashamed towards my family.

The woman they gave me to marry,

Her belly has not calmed down during three days,

The fourth day a headache is about to come.

What God does not want, that will not happen

Give me back the bridewealth that I paid for Sara

Two young boys ran away,

And they seated themselves on the branch of a ficus tree,

To watch the world, yes, this is how the world is

Two young boys ran away They went to Sara’s friends

They said We swear to God that Sara’s marriage is over

The ten kola nuts,

The ten kola nuts in this bowl, alas, they announce the bad news,

Mama Indeed, her promise made Sara sick

They gave them to her own father

Go and give them to her own father

Sara’s mother kept on crying, buru-buru-buru

She said Mother, do not cry,

May God stop your crying

Papa, won’t you call the men for meOf all the men of the village, The one who can calm down my belly today, papa, papa,

He must become my husband

The men from the village could not heal her,

The men from the neighbouring villages could not heal her,

The healers could not heal her,

The makers of amulets could not heal her

When did Sara get up?

Sara got up before daybreak

She went to the house of her lover

When she arrived Aah, is there nobody

In thehouse?

My lover, is there someone who has taken my place?

Whose voice is that in the dark?

Whose voice is that before daybreak?

This is the voice of the one with whom you share your secrets,

This is the voice of the one with whom you share your thoughts

He said won’t you come in, Sara who keeps her word?

I will come in, my lord

Won’t you take a seat, Sara who keeps her promise7

I will sit down, my lord

The healers could not heal her

The makers of amulets could not heal

If you want to calm down my belly efficiently,

You must take a bangbang pebble tomorrow,

And put it in smoldering charcoal

When the bangbang pebble is hot,

You must put it in my drinking water, my love,

And my belly will be calm tomorrow

It will happen like this because a promise is hard to keep

This man became Sara’s husband

Sara’s first child was named Sara,

Sara’s last child was named Sara

When a free man is not able to accomplish something,

He must not promise it,

Because his promise will commit him

He must never withdraw his word

Totem of the Fulbe, totem of the Maninka,

totem of the Bamana

What do you say about it nowadays?

Think about it!

Translation by Jan Jansen


The lyrics illustrate, very well the skillful way in which Sira Mori has justified through traditional morals, Sara’s marriage to her lover, the man of her own preference, and her escape from the marriage that had been arranged for her. The promise Sara made to her lover, that she would go to him in the end, supposedly committed her to him in a way she was powerless to avoid. Sira Mori has used the acknowledged power of a person’s word, which must never be withdrawn once spoken. She then ends the lyric with a question, naming the main cultural groups of her society, the Maninka, the Fulbe, the Bamana and asking them to consider the answer. This open question in a song of such influence which is stepped in tradition, leaves a larger question hanging in the air “Should a woman have to tolerate the accepted norm of having her own husband chosen for her? “. Coming from a female artist who was respected for her ability to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity, the sentiment of the song reaches out to women. This is the case with many of the songs performed at weddings by the Jelimuso who have become the heroines of the women who hire them and pay their fees, voicing and perhaps helping their society to face the tensions existing within in it’s gender politics.

It would seem that the women singers of Mali are in some way embody and express the strength and power of the females who buy their CDs, support them by employing them for their wedding celebrations and generally admire them in a society that has long attempted to marginalize the power of it’s women. It’s possible that the jelimuso has been a figure of female power and glamour throughout history (Duran ‘95) but has she ever held such a celebrated and indeed influential position as she does on the modern sumu scene among the ordinary people of Mali, and not as in ancient history, only among the horon (the aristocratic cast of the Mande Empire). Without the colonization of West Africa (Mali was colonized by the French 1892-1960). And the subsequent loss of power to the original royal and aristocratic patrons of the jeli, these “super women” may not ever have been employed by the ordinary women of the Mande region and subsequently have developed the style of song lyrics they now use at weddings. These lyrics tend to shine a light for their audiences on the disadvantaged position of the married woman and of many new brides in the Mande region.

Changes in government policy in recent years have given women more power under the law. The benefits of this may subsequently take many more years to filter through ingrained habits and established customs and modes of behavior to improve the life of the average woman. The lyrics contained in the songs of the jelimuso have played their part in highlighting the plight of women in Mande society and this is evident in the rise to popularity and local stardom of many of these “vedettes” and their songs.

Bibliography and References Cited.

Duran, Lucy; Bulletin of SOAS, 70, 3, 569-602. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 2006.

Duran, Lucy; Jelimuso-The Superwomen of Malian Music.

Liz Gunner & Graham Furniss (ed.) Power, Marginality and African Oral Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995, pp. 197-210

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

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

Janson, Jan; Siramory 1996



BBC News, “Mali protests against womens law” (viewed on Jan 24th 2011)

Deutsch Welle Article (viewd on Jan 24th 2011)


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

Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa

Song Writers Female Vocalists Singer Song writers Jelimuso Mali West Africa