Mah Damba: Hakili Kélé

July 21, 2020

Fabric of Humanity

Listening Post 262. Individuals merge into families, families into communities, communities into nations and the generations turn. One way we make sense of life’s fabric is through art, distilling human possibility and experience into memorable form. Ancient societies had guardians of oral history but the griot caste of West Africa demonstrates unique resilience, the troubadour-praise singer-historian-genealogists of old transitioning into today’s folk musicians. In modern Mali, Senegal, Guinea and neighboring lands, countless performing artists emerge from hereditary griot families. The Paris-based Malian singer-songwriter Mah Damba is an outstanding example, and Hakili Kélé, (One Thought) navigates humanity’s layers with 11 songs of history, tradition, values and coexistence in a multi-ethnic society. Singing in Bambara and Soninke, her warm voice—often soft and penetrating at the same time—climbs and descends through octaves, with choruses and acoustic instruments (ngoni, balafon, guitar, accordion) in orbit around her. The lilting Dambe (Culture, video 1) promotes unity in a nation that has known war in recent years. Taba (The Great Share, video 2) exalts self-reliance and mutual support, while Koulandjan (video 3) pays homage to traditional hunters. There’s a blues feel to Dondori, an ode to the Fulani people (video 4) and the hypnotic Kabako (Extraordinary) is a piece of an epic tale from the Bambara kingdom of Ségou (video 5). For all its power, Hakili Kélé was unexpected. For 30 years Mah Damba was accompanied by her husband, ngoni master Mamaye Kouyate; after he died in 2009 she released an album in his memory and then withdrew from the music scene. It was her longtime producer-guitarist Thierry Fournel who persuaded her to return to the studio and concert stage, accompanied by an ensemble that includes two of her daughters, one son and a nephew. The thread makes the fabric, the fabric sustains the thread, and the story continues. (Buda Musique)

Mah Damba: Hakili Kélé
Mah Damba: Vocals
Thierry Fournel: Guitar, guimbri, calabash
Makan “Badkè” Tounkara: Ngoni
Guimba Kouyate: Guitar
Djigui Tounkara: N’goni
Bakary Diarra: Balafon
Antoine Girard: Accordion
Emrah Kaptan: Bass
Woridjo Kouyate, Backing vocals
Sira Kouyate: Backing vocals
Niame Tounkara: Backing vocals
Madjare Drame: Backing vocals


Dambe / Culture
Lyrics: Mah Damba/Music: Yacouba Sissoko, Thierry Fournel
A song about peace in Mali. It is not in the tradition of the Malians to go to war; there is a tradition of listening and kinship between ethnic groups

(From the Bambara lyrics)
Listen to me, I tell you that war is not in the culture of Mali because it is war that destroys a country, a nation, a people
War is not in the custom of the Fulani, Soninke, Bambara and others

Jamana kélé, myria kélé, hakili kélé: “One country, one memory, one thought”


Taba / Large Share
Lyrics: Mah Damba/Music: Thierry Fournel
A song about reciprocity

Help me improve my small share/In turn I will help you improve your large share
A day will come/I tell you that the burden that God gives you to bear will never be heavy
Talking too much is a weakness/But staying silent is a weakness as well

I apologize to all who feel offended by my words, but I sing as a griot, not a lyricist
You should never disrespect griots or the old people of society


Lyrics: Mah Damba/Music: Guimba Kouyate, Mah Damba
A song in praise of traditional hunters

Great hunter Koulandjan, when you return to the forest, all the animals flee
By the river, the hippos, the caimans, flee because you are the strongest of the forest/the strongest of other hunters, the bravest of Brave
Listen to your praise because you are the bravest
Glory to you!


Dondori / Tribute to the Brave Fulani
Lyrics: Mah Damba/Music: Thierry Fournel

King Garba Mama, called Yoro Mam, was grateful to the griots and the lyricists
A real Fulani never abandons the calf
The proverb says, the monkeys do not run toward the mountain/nor have we ever seen the mountain run toward the monkeys
Garba Mama was great
This song has many dance steps/A dishonest person never dances when we sing Dondori


Kabako / Extraordinary
Lyrics: Mah Damba/Music: Mah Damba, Thierry Fournel
A song about the mysteries accomplished by the heroes of the ancient Bamanan (Bambara) kingdom of Ségou (1640-1862). It is a very small part of a great epic told by Mah’s father, the storyteller and ngoni player Djeli Baba Sissoko. Many of the words are esoteric and speak of magic

One day the great man of the village of Djitoumou mounted his horse and went to Tinénimba to capture the king’s son and behead him
We the griots sing of the the dead to make the living think
I tell you to be wary of the lying tongues of bad people
I tell you that extraordinary things happened in a village called Djoncoloni




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