Like all the genuine 'greats' of any musical genre you may care to mention, OUMOU SANGARE owes her position in the West African Hall of Fame to something over and above the ability to sing well. Songwriter, social commentator, champion of women's rights, spokesperson for her generation and her sex, Oumou is more than just a mere 'singer.' She is something closer to a phenomenon because she embodies values and struggles many people care deeply about; because she is an African, and above all, an African woman, who speaks her mind without a trace of fear.
Oumou Sangare was born in Bamako in 1968, to parents who had immigrated to Mali's burgeoning capital city from the region south of the Niger River known as Wassoulou. Her mother, Aminata Diakhite, was also a singer who, like most women of her generation, had to share her husband with two other wives. This formative experience of polygamy and its potential for causing pain and suffering made a deep impression on the young girl. Oumou's mother encouraged her to develop her precocious talents as a singer, whispering to her terrified daughter just before she took the stage of Bamako's Stade des Omnisports for her first public appearance at the tender age of six, 'Sing like you're at home in the kitchen.' After a period as a member of The National Ensemble of Mali, the training ground for many of the country's top musicians. Oumou was asked by Super Djata Band veteran Bamba Dambele to accompany his traditional percussion troupe Djoliba in 1986 on a tour of Europe. Following this brief introduction to the musician's life, Oumou returned home with the exceptionally precocious determination to form her own group and form her own sound based on the styles and traditions of her ancestral homeland, Wassoulou.
For reasons which even Oumou herself is hard pressed to explain adequately the Wassoulou region has produced a remarkable number of great women singers since Mali gained its independence in the early '60s. She regularly name checks pioneering figures like Coumba Sidibe, Sali Sidibe and Flan Saran as important influences, who together with many others forged a distinct style of music based on local dances and rhythms like the didai, the ban, the sigui and above all the sogonikun, a traditional masked dance performed, mainly by young girls, at harvest time. This unique style which came to be known as 'wassoulou,' combines the djembe drum and karyaing ('scraper'), propelled rhythms of the region traditional dances with the jittery yet funky sound of the kamalengoni (literally 'young man's harp'), an instrument which has played a key role in the development of wassoulou. Adapted by the youth of Yanfolila in the heart of Wassoulou from the donsongom, an ancient harp used in rituals by the wassoulou forest hunters, the kamalengoni in may ways symbolizes youth and, if not rebellion in a rock 'n' roll sense of the word, then at least a sense of fun, freedom and certain amount of rule-breaking.
Shortly after her return from Europe Oumou started working with the highly revered arranger Amadou Ba Guindo. Together with a fine group of musicians including Boubacar Diallo on guitar and Aliou Traore on violin, Oumou and Amadou Ba set about constructing a tight and highly individual sound, aiming for something rooted in tradition and yet unique and modern at the same time. Oumou replaced the traditional horse-hair fiddle or soku with a modern violin which had not been used by in a wassoulou line-up before and brought in the calabash or fle as a percussion instrument. After two years of hard work and experimentation, the group was offered a recording session; Oumou and company traveled to Abidjan in The Ivory coast and in seven days at the legendary JBZ studios they recorded 'Moussolou,' a collection of six original Oumou compositions. On its release in 1989, the cassette sold over 200,000. The public and the pirates went crazy and at 21, Oumou was a star.
'Moussolou' ('Women') is a classic of modern African pop. In its own way it represented something of a revolution in the way of African music is recorded and produced. With their crystal clear and beautifully sparse sound based on traditional and mainly acoustic instruments Oumou and Amadou Ba had concocted a viable alternative to what had previously been perceived as the only options:.tacky syth 'n' drum machine driven 'modernity' or unlistenable low-fl DIY trad 'obscurity.' Oumou's approach to her music also echoed the deeper struggle of her peer group for a cultural identity in which tradition is not thrown in the bin, but modernized with its essential character and strength intact. Oumou herself stresses the fact that although she speaks out against the abuses of traditional social customs such as polygamy, she herself is not anti-tradition. 'Just look at the clothes I wear,' she says' aren't they traditional!'
While the incredible success of 'Moussolou' put Oumou firmly on the West African map, it was only after a fortuitous introduction by the legendary Malian guitarist Mi Farka Toure in 1991 that UK label World Circuit picked up the rights for the album outside Africa and began to develop Oumou's international career. 'Moussolou' was given a universally positive reception on its worldwide release and Oumou, pen and inspiration never at rest, set about working on songs for her second album 'Ko Sira' ('Marriage Today') recorded in Berlin and released on World Circuit in 1993. 'Ko Sira' includes 'Saa Magni,' a moving tribute to the memory of Amadou Ba who died in a car crash. 'Death struck down Amadou Ba Guindo, 'she sings, 'death spares no creature, nothing can stop it, not even fame.'
With 'Ko Sira,' Oumou notched up her second best-selling album and consolidated her fame. Back home politicians rushed to associate themselves with her perceptive views on contemporary morality but Oumou remains defiantly non-aligned. She received numerous awards in Mali and 'Ko Sira' was voted European World Music album of the Year (1993). Despite the arrival of her first child, she set out on grueling tour schedules in Africa and Europe and in 1994 she paid her second visit to the USA as part of the Africa Fête package tour, performing to delighted audiences at Summer Stage in New York's Central Park. For her third album 'Worotan' (Ten Kola Nuts, i.e., the traditional bride-price in Mali) released in 1996, Oumou worked with Pee Wee Ellis, James Brown's erstwhile hornman and stalwart of the 'Horny Horns,' who made an enthusiastic yet respectfully controlled contribution to the Sangare sound. Nitin Sawhney, the British Asian guitar wizard also made an important contribution to the album, especially on the final song 'Djorolen,' one of Oumou's most moving compositions to date.
Perhaps the core reason for Wassoulou's national and later international popularity was that it offered people, especially young people, a welcome alternative to the ancient and predominant Malian tradition of
thejalis, or praise singers. Whereas thejalis sing the praises of important men and the glory of their ancestors, Wassouloij singers tackle everyday concerns in their songs. Whereas thejalis direct their praise at a particular individual (usually a pillar of society and community) hoping for a handsome reward, Wassoulou singers sing for everyone with no particular financial kick-back in mind. Whereas audiences will sit through the performance ofajali musician and listen with quiet reverence, Wassoulou singers expect their audiences to get up and dance.
Imbued with this 'Wassouloti' approach Oumou Sangare is definitely the thinking person's female star. When it's time to speak plain truths, she never shirks from her task. Throughout her recorded work the same themes recur; the struggles of women in a male-dominated Muslim society, the conflict between tradition and modernity, the puzzling sorrows and joys of life and death. With her imposing stature, defiant beauty, courageous intelligence and extraordinary voice she manages to impress and amaze almost everywhere she goes, in the streets of Bamako, the boutiques of Paris, the stages of the international concert circuit. When she sings with the ease and soulful power of an Aretha Franklin or Patsy Cline and then looks you right in the eye and says, 'I will fight until my dying day for the rights of African women and of women throughout the world' you just know you're dealing with someone very special.