Many women around the world are considered living legends of music because they hold a leadership role in the evolving history of their art form. Here, you’ll find a sampling of beloved artists who are easy to find in local music stores, or you can clink on the links to find them online.
An “A” list of living legend women singers and musicians should include Miriam Makeba (South Africa), Oukmou Sangare (Mali), Mariuam Doumbia (Mali), Lucilla Galeazzi (Italy), Zap Mama (Congo), Susana Baca (Peru), Yungchen Llamo (Tibet), Gal Costa (Brazil), Asha Bhosle (India), Mary Black (Ireland), Joan Baez (USA), and hundreds more.
The biographies of these women each tell a story, but one thing for sure—it is seldom easy for women in the music business. Some struggled for decades to make it, some came up in the traditions of their own cultures before winning a recording contract, and some hit the big time almost from the start of their careers, with the stresses of rapid fame to deal with. But we usually find a common theme of eventual triumph, world-class success, and recognition in the performing lives of these remarkable women artists and music tradition architects.
Baka forest women live deep in the heart of the African rainforest in Southeast Cameroon with their families. They are one of the oldest and most sensitive musical cultures on earth. The Baka are an egalitarian people who use music to solve disputes, regulate day-to-day affairs, heal illness and create the power and energy needed for communication with their protective spirit world. They play music for pleasure with their children as they are washing and taking their daily bath at the river by water drumming. In these recordings two women plunge, slap, and beat their hands in the river to create an extraordinary variety of rhythmic and melodic sounds.
Tartit (translated “union”) are a band from the Tombouctou region of Mali. The group, comprised of five women and four men, are members of the Tuareg ethnic group. Their music has become a means of survival in the midst of economic, social, and political strife in the region. The women play the traditional instruments, imzad and tinde, and are backed by men playing the ngoni and/or electric guitars. They also add chants and evocative, rhythmic clapping. They perform what has become known in the last decade as Desert Blues.
Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg in 1932. Her mother was a Swazi sangoma and her father, who died when she was six, was a Xhosa. A sangoma is a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination, and counseling in traditional Nguni societies of South Africa. The sangoma philosophy is based on a belief in ancestral spirits. Both men and women can be called by the ancestors to serve. A consequence of refusing the calling is usually a state of ongoing physical or mental illness.
Makeba’s first group, The Skylarks, sang a blend of jazz and traditional melodies of South Africa. She has a complex and fascinating life story, but let’s fast-forward to the 1960s, when Harry Belafonte assisted Makeba in gaining fame in the USA. In 1966, she received a Grammy for Best Folk Recording for, An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. The album dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under Apartheid, and Makeba has continued to work for peace and justice throughout her life.
In 2004, Makeba was voted into the top 100 list of Great South Africans. She started a worldwide farewell tour in 2005, holding concerts in all of those countries that she has visited in her working life. She is still touring in 2008.
The Mahotella Queens are a South African singing group formed in 1964, comprised of Hida Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Mbadu, and Mildred Mangxola. The group is noted for their clear three-part harmonies, Mbaquanga township music and fast-paced dancing. Well into their 60s, they are still performing today.
Oumou Sangare was born in 1968 in Bamako, Mali, and is sometimes called “the songbird of Wassoulou.” Wassoulou is a historic region south of the Niger River, and the music there is descended from traditional hunting songs, often accompanied by the calabash. Many of her songs have to do with love and marriage, especially freedom of choice in marriage. In 2001, she received the UNESCO Music Prize for her contribution to “the enrichment and the development of music as well as for the cause of peace, for the understanding among peoples and international cooperation.”
Mariza was born in 1973 in Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony. She is a Latin Grammy-nominated fado singer. Mariza moved to Portugal when she was three, and was raised in one of the most traditional quarters of Lisbon, where she learned how to sing fado. She has a Portuguese father and a mother from Mozambique. She has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, and many other world class venues. She is likely the heir-apparent to the throne once held by the late fado queen, Amalia Rodrigues.
Maria del Mar Bonet, born in 1947, is a Spanish singer from the island of Mallorca. She is a well-known performer, one of the most popular from the Mediterranean region. She studied ceramics in the school of arts, but eventually she decided to dedicate herself to song. She arrived in Barcelona in 1967, and she has already published many albums of folk music in Catalan, in spite of the prohibitions during Franco’s dictatorship.
Cesaria Evora is a Cape Verdean singer nicknamed the “barefoot diva” for her habit of performing without shoes. She is one of the most beloved of all women in world music. In 1988, she went to Paris where she recorded a new album, La diva aux pieds nus (The Barefoot Diva). The song Sodade was her first international hit, the first hit for a non-French song in France, and marked the beginning of worldwide fame for Cesaria Evora,
as she became an international star at the age of 47. The Portuguese term saudade relates to homesickness, nostalgia, longing, sadness, and regret.
Mariam Doumbia is half of the Malian performing couple, Amadou & Miriam. Both born in Bamako, they met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind, quickly finding a shared love for music. In a trance-inducing mix of traditional Malian sound with rock guitars, Syrian guitars, Cuban trumpets, Egyptian ney, Colombian trombones, Indian tablas, and Dogon percussion, they have thrilled the world in the past few years on the international music scene.
Asha Bhonsle is best known in her native India as a Bollywood film singer, although she has a much wider repertoire. Her career has already spanned six decades and over 950 films. She is the sister of the equally talented Lata Mangeshkar.
Lucilla Galeazzi comes from Umbria in Italy, with a classic, spirited voice. She has performed in theater groups, semi-classical ensembles and folk music revials, but it was her work with Philippe Eidel’sMammas project (with Equidad Bares, Yiota Vei, and Hayet Ayad) that brought her recognition around Europe and America.
Marie Daulne was born in 1964 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) to a Belgian father and a local Bantu mother. The local forest people saved Daulne from being murdered by rebels, as her father was. She is a founder and lead singer of the popular musical group Zap Mama, whose first album, Adventures in Afropea, became 1993’s best-selling world music album and established Daulne as an international artist.
Susana Baca, born in Lima province in 1944, is a prominent singer of Afro-Peruvian descent. She has been a key figure in the revival of Afro-Peruvian music within Peru. Baca has contributed much to its international popularity, which began in 1995 with the release of the compilation cd, The Soul of Black Peru. The album, which features the Baba song “Maria Lando”, was released by the prestigious Luaka Bop label, owned by world music artist and producer extraordinaire, David Byrne. Baca founded the Instituto Negrocontinuo in her seafront home in Peru, fostering the collection, preservation, and creation of Afro-Peruvian culture, music, and dance. In 2002, Baca won the Latin Grammy for Beset Folk Album, for her Lamento Negro cd.
Gal Costa, born in 1945 in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, is a very popular singer in Brazil. Costa became one of Brazil’s foremost Tropicalismo movement singers and guitar players during the late 1960s and ‘70s. Along with her friend, Maria Bethania, she became a political activist often coming into conflict with Brazil’s military government when dissent in music was censored in 1968.
Mary Black is an Irish singer who has played in many groups where she has mastered styles from jazz to country. She has won many Irish Recorded Music Association awards.
Joan Baez is a singer-songwriter who needs little introduction. She is known for her highly individual vocal style. She has performed for nearly 50 years, and has released over 30 albums and recorded songs in at least eight languages. She is considered a folk singer, but performs everything from rock and pop to country to gospel.
Ann Savoy was born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri, and is a musician, author, and record producer. She was raised in Richmond, Virginia, and resides in Southern Louisiana. As a musician, she performs with her husband accordionist Marc Savoy and fiddler Michael Doucet in the Savoy Doucet Cajun Band. She also has an all-woman band The Magnolia Sisters.
Irma Thomas was born in 1941 in Ponchatoula, Louisiana. She is a Grammy Award-winning soul and R&B artist. She is known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.” Thomas is a contemporary of Aretha Franklin and Etta James, but never experienced their level of commercial success. After Katrina, she has gotten a lot more exposure as a key voice of New Orleans. She has won a Grammy, and has a large cult following among soul aficionados.
Chava Alberstein was born in 1947 in Poland and is one of the most influential Israeli singers. She is also a lyricist, composer, musical arranger, and actress. Her career spans more than 40 years.
Toto La Momposina is a Colombian singer of traditional mixed indigenous Colombian and Afro-Latin music. She was born in northern Colombia, and released her 1993 album “La Candela Viva” on Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label.
Warda is an Algerian singer. She is well known in the Arabic music community for her Egyptian songs and music. She is one of the most famous Arabic artists because of her very powerful voice.
Yungchen Lhamo is a uniquely successful Tibetan singer. She tours the world, singing unaccompanied as she performs her own songs and traditional Buddhist chants and mantras. She was inspired to reach out to the world though her music, and to share her culture and educate people about Tibet. She moved to Australia in 1993, and then to NYC in 2000.
The sometimes hidden story of women in world music holds many secrets well worth unearthing. In profiles to come, we’ll feature more women in world music—including features on Folk Divas and Soul Healers. Stay tuned!