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Mali's Griot Singer Seeks World Stage


The impoverished West African country, Mali, has produced many musicians who have become masters of what is known as "world music." These include the albino Salif Keita, the blind couple Amadou and Mariam and the guitarist Ali Farka Toure, who recently died after winning his second Grammy music award in the United States. VOA's Nico Colombant profiles Mali's new local music star, Adja Soumano, who hopes to follow some of her contemporaries on the world stage.

Adja Soumano has a powerful and languorous voice. One dusty and quiet morning in Bamako, she sings with her neighbors in her living room. Her traditional music tells tales of life's difficult lessons.

Soumano is a griot, a caste within Mali's rigid society. Griots used to be the spokespeople for important families.

She says that evolved into singers at family events, like weddings and funerals.

She says now many griots try to make money from their musical talents. She says it used to be more about dignity.

Soumano does not like to sing about politics but she sings about fighting the stigma of HIV/AIDS. She also praises simple people. Recognition is starting to arrive.

Her last album, Kokabere, won her a Kora award she proudly presents, for best female artist from West Africa, at the African music awards last year in South Africa. The word Kora comes from the stringed musical instrument of African origin, which is made of a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin.

Her home's courtyard has become a safe haven for children who drop by.

She tells them stories about her family. Her great-grandfather and mother were both legendary griots.

Impromptu singing sessions also break out.

Soumano regularly visits her mother, Fanta Damba, at her home she bought for her in Bamako. Her mother is very sick, right now. Soumano says she suffers from hypertension.

She never sang with her mother during her career, but on her last album she used one of her mother's songs and now she sings it to her.

Her mother was very proud, but also said it was maybe what made her sick, because she says, her daughter stole her song.

On the day Soumano released her first album, her father died after a long bout with cancer.

Her father had beaten Soumano, as a child, saying she should not become a singer.

Until she makes it big on the world stage, Soumano can count on her fans in her home country for admiration.

She was one of the headline attractions for a March 26 concert, a holiday in Mali, marking the end of military dictatorship.

Mali's police had a hard time keeping fans away from the stage as Soumano arrived.

As always, she dazzled the audience.

As part of her efforts to reach out to a larger audience, Soumano agreed to a duo with the exiled Ivorian reggae star, Tiken Jah Fakoly.

Both are from the same ethnic Malinke group. On stage, Soumano sang his praise, as is the custom for griots.

She sings in the African languages Malinke, Bambara, Peul and Sarakole.

Back in her living room, she says a voice like hers deserves to be heard, in whatever language she sings.

She says she believes it is her role to spread messages of peace, dignity and good humor, during these turbulent times.