Oumou Sangare

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Oumou Sangare
Oumou Sangare (c) Judith Burrows

Article

Combative Queen

The moniker "Queen" is overused and inflated in a music scene teeming with singers going by the name, not only in the world of pop, but also in jazz and, yes, even in world music. But those fortunate enough to have encountered this imposing woman hardly will be disturbed by her continually being referred to as the "Queen of Wassoulou." Since the early 1990s, Oumou Sangare has effectively reigned over the Sahel scene—she is idolized in her homeland and enjoys star status in Europe – and this, despite the fact that she has released only a handful of albums on the market and treated herself to a generous 13 year break.
Sangare was born 1968 in Mali´s capital Bamako, but her family roots lay in the Wassoulou, which is located in the southeast; a region considered to be the greenest and most fertile in the country. Wassoulou has long produced great singers, who have created a riveting musical form from a wide variety of rhythms and dances of the harvest. Along with the majestic pentatonic song, the Kamalengoni also plays a major role in this music: The traditional harp instrument of hunters has recently been adapted by the younger generation and provides for a raw, “funky” base. These are the elements that sum up the "Wassoulou" style and are the cornerstone of Oumou Sangare’s music.

As a child, Oumou is recognized for the vocal talent she inherited from her mother and grandmother. In the late 1980s, she starts her career by experimenting with the arranger Amadou Ba Guindo and guitarist Boubacar Diallo, and finally begins recording her songs in Abidjan, then the center of the West African music industry. The sessions are released on cassette as "Moussoulou” (women) and becomes an instant hit, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in Africa. The explanation for its success is two-fold: Sangare revolutionizes Mali’s pop music by turning away from the electrically amplified sound popular of the time, and she works exclusively with acoustic ingredients, such as the one-string fiddle, the Kamalengoni and guitar. This places her powerfully charged voice at the forefront. And she doesn’t mince words: never before had anyone dared to speak out so bluntly in their texts against the practice of polygamy. "A woman is made for just one man," is the maxim of the practicing Muslima.

Thanks to Ali Farka Touré’s recommendation, Oumou Sangare’s reputation finally reaches Europe. The London-based label World Circuit, which later had a lucky break with the Buena Vista Social Club, takes the 21-year Malian under contract. Suddenly, "Wassoulou" becomes a term in the emerging world music scene which, up to that point, had been dominated by West Africa male singers. She records her second album "Ko Sira," in London, and in 1993 advances to album of the year on the World Music charts. In her third work, "Worotan" she takes her most daring step. The sound is more compact and creates a bridge to Afro-America: No less than Pee Wee Ellis, saxophonist with James Brown, is in charge for the horns. "I´m trying to find the balance between tradition and modernity," she said at the time. "The sound of brass instruments makes many Africans feel at home; on the one hand it gives them the Nigerian high life, and on the other people feel the connection between black Africa and black America." This work, too, climbs to the top of the world´s charts.

The following years are marked by a triumphal march across European and African stages. One of her performances is for the King of Swaziland who is notorious for his polygamy. The resolute Malian sings him a resounding slap in his face. Oumou Sangare refers to the Wassoulou tradition of the "Songbirds" when speaking about her "brazen" acts: "By slipping into the role of a bird, I have more freedom to denounce abuses in society, songs make expressing these things much easier than if you try to talk about them directly."

For her courage and innovative approach, she receives the 2001 International Music Council Award from UNESCO in Aachen. That same year she returns to her homeland Mali. There she produces her fourth album, "Laban," which she releases only in Mali and it goes gold. She also opens her own hotel in Bamako. Sangare releases a "Best of" CD that includes hitherto unknown pieces and few festivals in Europe are able to profit from her performances of it. Finally, in 2008, after an almost 13 year break, a new studio work entitled "Seya" is born.

Transparency is no longer the word for it: Oumou Sangare is surrounded by a 40 member big band, yet she still achieves the remarkable feat of embodying the listening habits of both the Wassoulou and Europe - not least because drummer Will Calhoun and flutist Magic Malik are part of the party along with the many traditional percussion, balafon, lute and harp players. The renowned Cheikh Tidiane Seck and World Circuit-Man Nick Gold share the title of producer. The lyrics draw on Sangare’s signature issues: the battle against polygamy continues, she sings a hymn to the Griots, and to the fashion designers and tailors who have allowed her charisma to shine throughout the years. Songs that simply celebrate joy ("Seya") are also included in the mix. And when the Haus der Kulturen der Welt celebrates its 20th anniversary, you couldn’t find a better party mood than with Oumou Sangare: the combative Malian also celebrated her first success exactly two decades ago.
Author: Stefan Franzen

Works

Seya

Published Audio,
2009
World Circuit (Indigo)

Oumou

Published Audio,
2004
Nonesuch

Worotan

Published Audio,
1996
Nonesuch

Ko Sira

Production / Performance,
1993
Nonesuch

Moussoulou

Published Audio,
1989
Nonesuch

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

The Spirit of the Haus

20 years of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt

(02 September 09 - 30 September 09)