When wassoulou music broke out of southern Mali in the late 1980s, it helped put the country’s Wassoulou region on the map for African pop fans. Singers and musicians such as Oumou Sangare, Coumba Sidebe and Sali Sidebe married traditional instruments such as the kamelengoni hunter’s harp and the djembe drum to a brash new lyrical outlook that helped propel one of Mali’s first homegrown youth movements.
One of the other great voices to emerge from the region is singer Ramatou Diakité, who first broke big in the late ’90s and is now setting her sights on the U.S.
Diakité grew up in a typical farming family, with music all around her. “In Wassalou children go to the field at four in the morning and sing to chase the birds so they don’t damage the crop. So I was always singing.”
She began performing locally at the age of 10, and caught her big break when she was just 17; singing backup for Djeneba Diakite in the capitol of Bamako. There her strong voice and multilingual talents made her an in-demand backing vocalist, and scored her an invitation to accompany Malian superstar Salif Keita at a festival in Paris.
But Diakité wasn’t content to play second fiddle. “I did my first album when I was 20 years old (Na, Cobalt Records, 1998),” she recalls. “It was very difficult and exhausting because it was my first experience in a studio and I had no support from my family. But it was a big success. The album launched my career in Mali and it opened doors for me. That year I did 52 concerts!”
Na also became her international calling card, attracting the attention of American bluesman Taj Mahal, who invited her, via Toumani Diabaté, to collaborate on 1999’s Kulanjan (Hannibal), a project that reconnected the blues to the music’s Malian roots. It was a natural fit for Diakité, since wassoulou music shares the blues’ pentatonic scale. W