Mali's Coumba Sidibe was a pioneering force behind the evolution of wassoulou, the earthy, propulsive music that first captured the imagination of west African listeners in the mid-'70s. A singer of elemental power, she set the stage for a generation of artists including Oumou Sangaré, Issa Bagayogo, and Nahawa Doumbia, although their international fame consistently eluded her. Born in Koninko, Mali in 1950, Sidibe began singing at regional harvest festivals at the age of seven, following in the footsteps of her father Diara, a famed dancer and sorcerer skilled in the ecstatic percussion and dance tradition known as sogoninkun, and her mother, a vocalist of great local renown. The first female member of l'Ensemble Instrumental National du Mali, a state-sponsored orchestra created to represent the nation's folkloric traditions, Sidibe exited their ranks in 1977 to team with Alata Brulaye, the creator of the kamelengon, a six-string harp modeled on the sacred dosongoni, an instrument effectively off limits popular musicians. The kamelengoni's funky, percussive sound quickly emerged as the foundation of the wassoulou aesthetic, a neo-traditional style that threatened the long-standing cultural dominance of Mali's jelis, the music-making caste whose roots date back to the 13th century. While the jelis performed traditional songs targeted to the wealthy and powerful, the so-called "kono" (i.e., the predominantly female "songbirds" at the forefront of the wassoulou movement) addressed contemporary themes like romance and feminism; hits like "Diya ye Banna" earned Sidibe the unofficial title "Queen of Wassoulou," and her backing group Le Super Mansa de Wassoulou was the launching pad for future superstars including Sangaré, arguably the most successful Malian artist of her generation. While a revered figure in her homeland, Sidibe never attracted the music of the world music cognoscenti, and in the late '90s she and her family relocated to New York City, where she headlined a Sunday night residency at Harlem's St. Nick's Pub. Sidibe died in Brooklyn on May 10, 2009.
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