Oumou Sangare was born in Bamako in 1968, to parents who had immigrated to Mali’s capital city from the region south of the Niger river known as Wassulu. Her mother, Aminata Daikhite, was also a vocalist, who, like most women of her generation, had to share her husband with two other wives. This influential 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 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 determination to form her own group and form her own sound based on the styles and traditions of her ancestral homeland, Wassulu.
For reasons which even Oumou herself is hard pressed to explain, the Wassulu region, has produced a remarkable number of great women singers since Mali gained its independence in the early 60’s. 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 bari, the sigui and above all the sogonihun, a traditional masked dance performed mainly by young girls at harvest time. This unique style which came to be known as ‘wassulu’, combines the jembe drum and karyaing (“scraper”), propelled rhythms of the regional traditional dances with the jittery yet funky sound of the kamale ngoni (literally “young man’s harp”), an instrument which has played a key role in the development of wassulu. Adapted by the youth of Yanfolila in the heart of Wassulu from the donsongoni, an ancient harp used in rituals by the wassouloU forest hunters, the kamalengoni in many ways symbolizes youth.
Shortly after her return from Europe, Oumou started working with acclaimed 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 modem violin which has not been used by in a wassulu lineup before and brought in the calabash or fie 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.
Moussolou (Women) is a classic of modem African pop. In its own way, it represented something of a revolution in the way 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-fi DIY trad ‘obscurity’. Ournou’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 a polygamy, she herself is not antitradition. “Just look at the clothes I wear,” she says “aren’t they traditional!”
While the incredible success of Moussolou put Oumou firmly en the West African map, it was only after a fortuitous introduction by the legendary Malian guitarist Ali 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 Pete package tour, performing to delighted audiences a t 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 Fee 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 Ournou’s most moving compositions to date.
Perhaps the core reason for Wassulu’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 the jalis, or praise singers. Whereas the jalis sing the praises of important men and the glory of their ancestors, Wassulu singers tackle everyday concerns in their songs. Whereas the jalis direct their praise at a particular individual (usually a pillar of society and community) hoping for a handsome reward, Wassulu singers sing for everyone with no particular financial kick-back in mind.
In October 2003 Oumou Sangare, was appointed Ambassadress of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)* at a ceremony in Rome. Her appointment as Ambassadress forms part of the FAO’s ‘struggle against famine.’ This appointment means a great deal to Oumou Sangare who has throughout her career been committed to addressing the inequalities faced by millions of Africans and of Women in particular. Thanks to her international fame and influence on her public, Oumou was been given the responsibility of making the public aware of the vast problems that Africa faces through her concerts and press conferences.
In 2017, Oumou released Mogoya, her first album of new material in eight years. The album featured powerful messages of empowerment and perseverance for African women, and addressing serious social issues such as depression and suicide. While retaining signature elements of her traditional Wassulu sound, this album took a different direction. Omou teamed up with an all-new French production team, A.L.B.E.R.T. (Vincent Taurelle, Ludovic Bruni, and Vincent Taeger) known for their work with Beck, Air, and Franz Ferdinand.
[Partially adapted from an original text by Andy Morgan]
Moussolou (World Circuit Records, 1991)
Bi Furu (1993)
Ko Sira (World Circuit Records, 1993)
Denw Mali (K7 SA, 1996)
Worotan (World Circuit Records, 1996)
Non Stop (2003)
Seya (World Circuit Records, 2009)
Mogoya (No Format, 2017)