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"Oh dear love, please forgive me: Ten cola nuts turn a woman into a slave." Having a pretty healthy ego, I'm convinced that my dowry in Mali would be worth at least eleven caffeine-stimulating cola nuts. Surely West African ngara (master singer) Kandia Kouyate, who sings these lyrics in her first solo CD, Kita Kan, is worth quite a bit more than a few nuts. Indeed she is Mali's greatest living female singer. At her concerts in the capital city of Bamako, audience members often are so captivated by her voice that they become dizzy with bliss. Her music doesn't quite have this disorienting effect on me, but she sings so earnestly and soulfully, that I wish I could understand her sans an interpreter. So, I pulled open the CD cover and discovered a world apart from my own: a world of diviners, destiny, extravagant patrons (Kouyate once received a small airplane from her patron), and, yes, cola nuts. She sings, "The diviners are wasting their time./Those who criticize others are wasting their time, for destiny cannot be changed." Take that, you superficial Westerners.
Kouyate's voice is richer, deeper, and less nasal than some of her male counterparts from West Africa. But I caution the listener looking for some infectious danceable world-beat rhythms, that this may not be the disc for you. Much of Kita Kan is filled with classical, historical praise songs that are slow and haunting in tone. The fact that, as a woman, she is allowed to perform these devotional songs at all is a testament to her talent: Women in Mali are still largely denied the right to sing such types of ballads. Kouyate lives up to the task, however, in a wonderfully hypnotic storytelling manner. Her music is orchestrated by traditional instruments (kora, ngoni, balafon), with the occasional addition of a full Western symphony of violins and even a classical guitar solo or two. She also uses a melodic female chorus as an effective contrast to her powerful voice.
"Kandali" is the liveliest tune here. It starts out deceptively slow and then, with no warning, an entire brass section, electric bass, and a guitar all roll in together in a festive upbeat melody. I can't help but spastically bounce around in my chair when it comes on. Because, after all, we must enjoy life while we have it. As Kouyate sings, "Try to achieve something while you can, because life is short./The earth will devour you sooner or later." So, I sit, smile, and happily squirm. -- Heidi Dierssen