After a series of locally released cassette tapes and CDs, Malian singer Awa Poulo has delivered her first internationally distributed album, Poulo Warali, via Awesome Tapes from Africa. Hailing from the Dilli commune in southwestern Mali, Poulo delivers a dynamic set of songs rooted in the folk traditions of the Peulh, a pastoral people from this remote region near the Mauritanian border. Full of catchy call-and-response melodies and rich vocal harmonies, the album displays a remarkably balanced sense of sonic structure and atmospheric instrumentation, the sum of which transports the listener to a place which is comfortable, yet completely captivating.
The instrumentation on the record has a distinctly Peulh palette. It opens on “Dimo Yaou Tata” with the warm sound of Souley Guindo’s flute, quickly joined by brittle riffs from Kande Sissoko’s plucked ngoni and Cheickne Diabate’s slightly distorted electric guitar. The organic quality of Sana Diarra’s calabash provides a dynamic pulse to the whole ensemble as the instruments melt together to create an entrancing, rolling rhythm interspersed with brief improvisations from the strings. Poulo’s singing has an earthy quality to it, sweet and relatively effortless. She collaborates with the band with confident dexterity and a clear understanding of the value of space, shifting from having her voice at the center of the song to letting it move to a background role, allowing the rest of the band to carry the energy forward when appropriate.
As a whole, Awa Poulo and her band craft captivating and interlocked rhythms and melodies, delicately restrained in order to grow for several minutes as the songs evolve. In several instances, the repetition is particularly structured and entrancing, in some ways hinting to North American classical minimalism which was inspired in various ways by West African rhythms, and generally giving a contemporary touch to a rustic folk sound. “Mido Yirima” stands out with its call-and-response chorus of male and female voices, and a background double-time pulse which creates a sense of constant movement, perhaps of travel over vast grassy plains.
Awa Poulo’s music inscribes itself in a local music scene of which she has long been part, despite the rarity of women’s open participation in Peulh music-making. Her mother’s co-wife, Inna Baba Coulibaly, is a celebrated singer whose own passion for music allowed her to overcome local pressures when she represented her village in a regional music contest and won first place, leading to a national and international recording career. In turn, Poulo’s album was recorded at Studio Mali in Bamako in 2015 and was produced by Paul Chandler, an American musician and educator who has been living in Mali for over a decade and has been collaborating with local artists, including Inna Baba Coulibaly, in an effort to promote regional music from around the country.
Poulo Warali was released digitally, on CD and on vinyl on Jan. 20, 2017, and is available directly from Awesome Tapes From Africa. The album adds to the label’s increasingly rich and diverse catalogue, one which started off through reissues of cassette tapes that had previously only seen local distribution, and that label head Brian Schimkowitz had purchased while traveling throughout the continent. Along with other recent releases such as SK Kakraba’s Songs of Paapiye, Poulo Warali is evidence of Schimkowitz’s deeper goal of releasing relatively contemporary music from the African content that we simply aren’t hearing anywhere else.
Inna Baba Coulibaly was featured in a documentary video by Instruments4Africa, a nonprofit cofounded by Paul Chandler.