The impressive and vibrant music scenes of Mali have seen increased success in the Western world in recent years. Whilst artists like Samba Touré, Salif Keïta and Toumani Diabaté have only seen minimal success and recognition in North America and Europe, the commercial and critical success of a band like desert punks Songhoy Blues has shined a light on an opening in the market for acts of a similar style and sound. Whilst Awa Poulo is by no means stirring up a storm in the West, her debut on Los Angeles-based Awesome Tapes From Africa is a promising start for the singer that has seen her achieve a respectable level of underground acclaim. On Poulo Warali, Poulo channels the music of the Peulh people whilst weaving it around a notable Afropop influence, making for a record that could really gain traction in North America and Europe were it given good publicity. The amount of musical maturity and experience that Poulo conveys on this record is impressive, but not surprising given her upbringing, being the daughter and protégé of Peulh singer Inna Baba Coulibaly. Given the rarity of women performing publicly amongst the Peulh people, Poulo’s talent would most-likely have gone unnoticed were it not for her fortunate connection to an influential female Peulh artist. Indeed, as one would expect, Coulibaly’s influence on this new undertaking by Poulo is always present, as is the inspiration from the burgeoning singer’s cultural background in general. Whilst some compositions on Poulo Warali may deviate from typical Peulh musical traditions ever so slightly, making use of crunchy electric guitars and more pop-influenced conventions, there exists an undying undercurrent of influence from the singer’s home region and its people.
This album’s opener, Dimo Yaou Tata, makes Poulo’s mission objective clear right from the onset. The beautifully intertwining flute and n’goni that appear on this track are a staple across the entire record and demonstrate how true this record stays to standard Peulh musical practices from its earliest moments. This is reinforced by the use of a large, hollowed-out calabash as a hand percussion instrument, which provides this record’s sound with an even more unique and vibrant sensation. The group vocals that introduce this song are rich and warm, and Poulo’s solo vocal performance is controlled and textured, showing just how much she has picked up from her mother and mentor.
Djulau is the first composition on Poulo Warali to demonstrate a distinct influence from Malian music outside of Poulo’s remote stamping ground in the south-western region of the country. The clean electric guitar that is subtly worked into the mix has an audible desert blues flavour to it, popular amongst underground music scenes in Timbuktu and other Malian cities based in desert biomes. On this track, the n’goni is still the dominant of the stringed-instruments, but the electric guitar adds an entirely new layer to Poulo’s band’s sound that really enriches and enlivens the textured pieces, whilst still retaining an undeniably organic and traditional sound.
Despite not being able to understand the lyrics on this record at all, I still feel that there is commentary to be made on them. Poulo’s decision to sing in her Peulh tongue is an interesting one, seeing as Mali homes a great plurality of different native languages, although it more-than-likely didn’t cross the artist’s mind to sing in any language other than her mother tongue. Although Peulh is the second most commonly-spoken language in Mali, it is only spoken by 9.4% of the population, with Bambara, the most widely-spoken language, being spoken by 46.3% of Malian citizens. In spite of this fact, Poulo Warali is by no means an album inaccessible to the rest of the country, as the varied influences on the record that stem from myriad music scenes across the nation result in a diverse sound with which many people from all over the country could connect.
Whilst this review may be considerably shorter than the average review I write for this website, I feel that this is a very strong and promising release from one of Mali’s most interesting rising artists. It must be said that the album is somewhat of a one-trick pony, with its eight songs that barely exceed the half an hour mark being very similar in structural and stylistic themes, so I feel I would be repeating myself if I dissected every cut on here. Moreover, I, of course, must concede that my knowledge on much of the cultural context of this record is rather limited, so my insight may be slightly wanting, but the purpose of this website is not to show off my musical or cultural knowledge, rather it is to share my opinion on new releases and hopefully turn people on to some hidden gems of which they would otherwise be unaware, and this record is certainly one of said gems.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10