She appears to have been betrayed by lovers, record producers, friends and family...
Martin Longley 2005
In Mali, mastering the kamelen n'goni is not normally a female pursuit. Sata's other instrument is her voice, but it was the guita that she began playing in public, during wedding ceremonies. This is an upturned half-calabash which is struck with the side of the fist, producing a deep, resonant sound.
Kokanko was born Sata Doumbia, but took her new (and much less common) first name to distinguish herself on the path to musical success. A kokanko is a small bird which is said to predict the future, and alert travellers to perilous situations. Sata didn't stay in the small village of Siekorolen for long, moving up from Wassoulou territory to Bamako when she was still a little girl. Now, she's nearing the end of her thirties.
Sata learned to play the kamelen n'goni herself, principally because she feared that none of its mostly male practitioners would be willing to transmit their knowledge to a woman. She even made her own instrument, from a gourd and a sturdy piece of wood. This is a practice that Sata has continued down the years. The kamelan n'goni is not to be confused with the banjo-like n'goni. It's more akin to a mini-kora in appearance...
The opportunity to record this first album came directly as a result of Sata's involvement with Damon Albarn's Mali Music band, who appeared at London's Barbican in 2002. On most of these tunes, Kokanko is joined by an all-acoustic band that includes guitar, balafon, flute and percussion in its line-up, but on some tracks she strips the sound down to an exposed solo expression, all the better to discern the rich grain of her voice and the tensile snap of her strings. At times, the ensemble pieces take on a relentlessly driving momentum, locking into a cyclic repetition that is embellished by individual trills, flourishes or patters. The three-piece percussion wing become quite forceful when required.
Kokanko's existence seems particularly fraught with relationship problems, judging by the words to her songs. She appears to have been betrayed by lovers, record producers, friends and family members, and is weighed down by the mixed emotions of leaving her home to travel. The actual quality of Sata's voice is not as mournful as its subject matter might suggest, pitched somewhere between the extremes of exultation and resignation. She's not the most emotional of Wassoulou singers, but this is still an album of great acoustic resonance.