In Africa, musical and oral performances have long been a favorite medium for women’s verbal expression. Singing seems to be a particularly way for women to express popular feelings or wishes that they cannot express publicly, such as subtle criticism, the longing for a friend, and despair (Diawara 1990; cf. Wright 1993). Songs, proverbs, stories, and folktales are a favorite medium for women when they want to entertain themselves and others during social events.
In Mali, the central role of women in the oral and musical arts has led to a recent and remarkable development. Women have become pop stars of national, sometimes even international acclaim, as a result of the increased availability of radio (since 1957), audiocassettes, television, and music videos (since the 1980s). One important reason for the stunning success of women singers in the media market is that the new technologies of visualization accompanying aural recording move the voice quality and visible dimensions of women’s performance to the foreground. Electronic media has triggered a significant shift in the conventions, contents, and economics of musical performances. National television, especially, provides a new platform for the conspicuous display of prestige and power by wealthy and influential individuals for a nationwide audience of consumers.
Almost all of the Malian pop stars come from the southern triangle of Mali, the heartland of the Mande people who speak two closely related languages, Bamanankan and Maninkakan. It is the musical repertoire, languages, and historical traditions of their home communities that the women pop stars draw upon in their performances. Over the past fifteen years, these women singers have become the pop icons of a national Malian culture, because television offers them a stage on which to present their regional musical styles as a "national" Malian music to national and international audiences.
This dominance of southern languages and traditions in the national Malian arena goes back to the colonial period, when peoples from the south were more easily integrated into colonial administration and the schooling system. The unequal representation of Malian local cultures has been supported by the fact that for more than twenty years, international popular press and scholarly publications focused on musicians from the south and their musical traditions (Ali Farka Toure and Boubakar Traore being two notable exceptions). Approximately 80 percent of the audience that attends pop concerts and watches music videos are woman. The fans of the pop stars clearly distinguish between the singers according to their singing skills, their costumes, demeanors, and their knowledge of different local musical styles, songs, and historical traditions.
Most of the pop singers are from families of professional musicians and orators. The Bamana and Maninka in southern Mali call these orators jeliw and Jaliw (singular jeli/jali) respectively and consider them a special category of people distinct from "freeborn" people (singular horon) and descendants of serfs (singular jon). Until French colonial occupation of the area in the nineteenth century, jeli families lived together with the most wealthy and powerful "free born" families of a rural community and passed down their patron family’s traditions and histories in exchange for material support. On festive events that were of importance to the entire local community, jeli women were expected to praise their patron family’s prestigious genealogy and heroic origins, and thus to enhance its reputation. Patron families compensated their jeli women’s musical performances by giving them occasional gifts in the form of grain, cattle, and captives. To heighten the public renown of their patron families through musical performances and historical recitations was only one the jeliw’s tasks. Other important functions were the resolution of conflicts and the restoring of social order and harmony to the local community. In compensation, wealthy patron families provided food and shelter for their jeli clients.
Over the past eighty years, these former affiliations between jeliw and their free-born patron families have been increasingly eroded as a consequence of altered sociopolitical hierarchies under colonial rule and the introduction of money as general mode of payment. As the social and political context changed within which jeli women performed their songs, the significance, contents and conventions of their performances were also transformed.
These changes are most apparent in urban areas, where jeliw can no longer call upon a patron to provide food and housing. People who are born into a jeli family pursue various kinds of income-generating activities. They teach, work in the state administration or have other jobs in the formal sector of the economy. Others live from occasional conflict resolutions or musical performances on behalf of various "patrons." Those who are solicited to intervene in conflicts or negotiations, or to sing a patron’s praise, are generally paid in money (Schulz 1999). In remote rural settings of contemporary Mali, jeli families continue to live with and work for their patron families, but they depend less on their patrons’ material support than before. Like their patrons, jeliw own land and are primarily agriculturalists. Jeli women sing for their patrons at family events and on other occasions of public importance and they receive gifts from their patrons in form of grain, cattle, or money.
Cultural conventions assign different oral and musical performance genres to men and women, but this division is not absolute (Duran 1995, 2001). The instruments on which men accompany women’s songs or their own recitations very from region to region: the kora (a twenty-one-string harp-lute), the n’goni (a three to five string guitar), the bala (xylophone), or various kinds of drums. Women only play the karanyan, a slit iron tube on which they play the rhythm with a stick. Men generally recite epics and family genealogies and recount the deeds of historical personalities, legendary heroes, and other historical events that are relevant to the identity of the family and its clan name. Songs, in contrast, are the favorite genre of jeli women. People distinguish between different kinds of songs according to their function and the occasion of their performance. Women’s songs cover a broad range of topics, and all girls and women may sing them, for themselves or in groups, during their work or leisure time. But only women of jeli origin should perform them on events of public importance.
In private settings, any woman may express in her songs, albeit in a subtle and indirect fashion, her dissenting views, feelings and wishes that should not be spoken of publicly. Other songs recount the stories of women or men who have excelled by outstanding deeds or attitudes. These songs, highly appreciated because of their educational value, are referred to as songs that "give a moral lesson" (ladili). In private settings, members of a free-born family may call upon a jeli woman whom they like and trust to come and "make the time pass more easily" by singing for their friends.
In contrast, the primary function of jeli women’s songs that are performed before a public audience is to enhance the renown of a patron and to laud his prestigious family name or particular accomplishments (fasadali). Praise songs are composed of various textual elements; praise (fasa), benedictions, proverbs as well as formulaic expressions and honorific terms that are attributed to particular clan identities. The contents and musical arrangement of a song are left to the intuition of the artist. Praise songs, too, may include passages in which an individual may be presented as an example of moral excellence. Depending on the occasion of the public gathering, a jeli woman will focus more on moralizing reflections or on praise. On festive occasions, such as weddings and baptisms, her performance will glorify her host family and remind the audience of the eminent deeds that her patron accomplished on behalf of the community. As a reward, the jeli woman can expect a generous gift—in kind or money—from her patron. For a freeborn woman, in contrast, it would be unthinkable to publicly raise her voice in praise of another person and even less so, to receive a compensation for it.
A jeli woman’s attractiveness and the visual aesthetics of her performance play an important role in her evaluation by the audience. In contrast to a woman of free birth who should dress modestly, jeli women dress in a spectacularly extravagant and conspicuous way and dance with elaborate and sometimes erotically evocative steps, slow and sustained gestures and body movements. It is thus easier for jeli women to attract the spectators’ attention than it is for jeli musicians who are simply sitting and recounting a story or accompanying the singer’s performance.
An important change brought about by the new electronic media is that it enhances the public nature of women’s musical performances and transforms the patterns of interaction between audience, singer, and the orchestra. Television and video technologies support a process of commercialization, in the course of which praise performances have become a commodity: praise is no longer a client service, but has become a good that anybody can purchase. Because some wealthy individuals pay large sums for their public praise, there is a growing number of women who are not of jeli origin but do earn money by publicly flattering individuals in the jeli praise style (Schulz 1999). Another effect of broadcasting is, therefore, that it has turned public flattery into a very lucrative occupation, while rendering the social origin of the performance less important. With the mass mediation of praise songs and songs "that give a moral lesson," the social significance of the songs has also changed. Whereas the songs were performed at special events in the past, they have now become a background entertainment that accompanies everyday work and conversations.
Broadcast media seem to provide a new and particularly advantageous medium for women artists. The multilayered visual and musical performances broadcast on television bring dimensions to the foreground in which women excel over male artists. Certainly, some jeli men, historians, and musicians are still venerated emblems of a prestigious "Malian" past and of authentic traditions and knowledge. But male musicians in general seem to have lost ground in the popular music market to women. One reason for these changes might be that video and television allow women to move into the prominent positions during broadcast performances and to visually display fashion, elegance, and performance skills. The women performers, with their carefully designed and staged womanly demeanor, body movements, dresses, accessories, and background scenery, combine elements of Western consumer culture with emblems of a Malian cultural authenticity. This authenticity is evoked through visual allusions to the singer’s geographic location in an idyllic, traditional, rural setting. The pop stars, such as Kandia Kouyate, Tata Bambo Kouyate, and Ami Koita, thus set new standards for women’s identity constructions, because they fashion images of womanhood that draw on conventional stereotypes of an ideal women and on emblems of Western consumer orientation. In this way, women singers, in their visual enactment of new dancing styles and experimental body movements and postures, become not only trendsetters for new and daring dresses and demeanor, but also literally embody new consumer orientations (Schulz 2001).