There are two good reasons why the music of Mali's Wassoulou region rates as a distinct sound -- the singers are women and they're not griots, which expands the lyrical content beyond oral history into current issues facing everyday people. The liner notes to this first compilation featuring the Wassoulou singers makes much of the similarities with familiar U.S. black music forms like blues, soul, and funk, but there's a lot more to the music than that. One intriguing thing is that younger-generation singers like Oumou Sangaré and Sali Sidibe have gained international recognition by going back closer to the tradition with acoustic instruments, yet veterans Kagbe Sidibe and Coumba Sidibe sound the most modern. A flute solo leads off "Wale Gnouma Don" before violin and balafon carry the melody beneath the latter's rough voice, and her "Ntanan" is what would probably be called classic Wassoulou now. Sangaré is a more regally restrained presence, with a bed of kamal gouni and violin riffs setting off her soft vocal. But Coumba Sidibe's "Konyan" sounds like a fully urban rock version of Wassoulou -- drums, synthesizers, bass and lead guitars, call-and-response vocals -- as opposed to the almost country flavor of the first two tracks. And Kagbe Sidibe's vocals on the closing "Kouloumba" come rapid-fire at you almost at a dancehall reggae DJ clip, zipping along for six minutes while circular riffs climb up and down over the percussion bed. The biggest frustration about Women of Mali is the absence of musician credits in the liner notes. The constantly inventive guitar player with the metallic tone flowing behind the voices on Djeneba Diakité's "Ibe Miri Mouna" and "Dougou Dassiri" is exceptional and deserves to have his name known. Same with the musicians on Sali Sidibe's "Djen Magni," which boasts a magnetic violin solo and a really seductive, simple underlying rhythm that pulls at you from the start. But those are the only real flaws in a groundbreaking compilation that's historically important and musically inspiring.
AllMusic Review by Don Snowden