Letter from Dr Lucy Durán, lecturer in African music, SOAS
I am writing to correct a rather important mistake over the regional identity of the Malian female vocalist, Djénéba Seck cited in the Songlines review [#87, p60, available as a digital only release from Sterns] of her album Manghoya Foura (please note correct spelling of the title). The reviewer bases his entire critique on the idea that Seck is a Wassoulou singer, ie of origin from the southern region of Wassoulou. He’s not to blame, because this is how she is described in the accompanying notes on SoundCloud. But Seck has no links with Wassoulou whatsoever. Her family are originally from Kita to the north-west of the capital, and her ethnicity is Fula (note the two little scarifications on either side of her eyes, visible on her album covers). She was born and raised in Bamako, with no musical background, and she only got into music by joining a theatre troupe.
Wassoulou music (of whom the best known artist is Oumou Sangaré) draws on various regional traditions like hunters’ music and masquerade dances like sogoninkun. The trademark instrument of this style is the kamalengoni (youth harp). Seck has never used the kamalengoni in her music, despite the reviewer’s reference to a six-string harp-lute on the album. The sound of plucked strings on all her albums (apart from the guitar) actually comes from the ngoni (lute), which is played by her husband, Sékou Kouyaté, a Bamana griot from Segou. Griots – musicians by birth – are the opposite of the kono (songbirds) of Wassoulou, artists by choice. Kouyaté is the musical arranger on all Seck’s albums, which if anything are in a Bamana, not Wassoulou style. So the reviewer’s comment that the album is a ‘much purer example of the Wassoulou sound than the album Fatou’ is far off the mark.
The problem dates back to the inclusion of one of Seck’s tracks in the 1994 Sterns’ compilation, The Wassoulou Sound Vol 2: Women of Mali. Seck is the only non-Wassoulou artist included in the compilation, but it’s easy to see why the mistake could have been made: there are some musical elements in common between Wassoulou and her style, such as the pentatonic scale, the use of a one-string fiddle, and the flute, an instrument that is intrinsic to her Fula heritage (and has nothing at all to do with Bollywood, as the reviewer assumed).
Seck is not so well known outside Mali, but locally she is one of its most popular and respected singers. In 2005, she won Mali’s prestigious Tamani d’Or prize (something like the Brit awards) for best artist and best female artist. In 2006, her album Tigné (The Truth) was Mali’s best-selling cassette. Her reputation is as a singer with strong Islamic beliefs who bows to male dominance. One of Mali’s most influential and powerful Muslim clerics, Cheick Chérif Ousmane Madani Haidara, is widely quoted as having said, “If you don’t have the time to come to hear me in person, buy Seck’s cassettes.”
Your reviewer says, ‘like fellow Wassoulou singers Oumou Sangaré and Fatoumata Diawara, Seck tackles social, political and women’s rights issues in her lyrics.’ He’s right about the political issues. Her first big hit ‘Kankelentigui’ (The Person Who Keeps His Word) from 1992 – the song on the Sterns’ compilation – is more relevant than ever today with the instable situation in Mali. Here’s a quote from those lyrics: ‘if you give your word that you are to be trusted, then you must do many trustworthy things. If you give your word about freedom, then you must do many things to ensure freedom. Leaders of Mali, stand up firm, otherwise there’s no future for us.’
But Seck’s position on women’s rights is very conservative, and most of her songs advise women to obey their husbands and foster good relationships with co-wives, as in ‘Ni te ke ne la’ (This Won’t Happen to Me) from the album Tigné.
‘This illness (of unhappy marriage) we see, who knows the roots of this illness? Married woman know where it is rooted. Every woman boasts “I love marriage.” But women say, “we can’t stand men’s stinginess.” Women say, “we can’t stand being tortured by men.” When the child of the marriage turns into a loser, women will exclaim, “my child’s failure is due to evil spells. My co-wife cast an evil spell on him/her.” Women, if we are unable to endure suffering, our children will just grow into weaklings. If we look back to our forefathers’ lifestyle, a wife would never insult her husband in the home. A wife would never contradict her husband in the home. A wife would never say vexatious words to her husband in the home. A woman would never humiliate her husband in the home. But today if a husband says one word, wives will respond with ten. If we want children to be successful – married woman of modern times – if we want children to be well behaved, we should be the first to behave well. A woman’s dignity resides in being married.’
Such lyrics are very popular with both men and women in Mali, showing that not all local women singers support the anti-polygamy views that Oumou Sangaré has made famous internationally. One more reason why the music of Djénéba Seck needs to be understood on its own terms.
Dr Lucy Durán, lecturer in African music, SOAS