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Long before Nahawa Doumbia was a leading face in Wassoulou music, an indigenous strain of folk sang by women in Mali, she was a young singer trying to find her voice. So while her 1981 album, La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol. 1, is just vocals and acoustic guitar (played by her future husband N’Gou Bagayoko), you can hear fragments of the percussive didadi rhythms that made her a superstar in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. On Vol. 1, Doumbia was still in search of a unique sound.
Compared with the fully-developed orchestration of La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol. 3, Doumbia’s first record feels intimate, albeit raw, and full of unfiltered vocals that accentuate scant backing tracks. Vol. 1 plays like a demo tape recorded in one take—in a good way—which only adds to the charm, offering a rare glimpse into the beginning of Doumbia’s illustrious career as Bougouni’s most famous export. “It’s one of the albums that I love most because it reminds me of my youth,” she recalls in the album’s liner notes. “I was so young and my voice was light and joyful. I still listen to some of those songs today.”