Oumou Sangare: Lady sings the blues

The songs of the great Malian diva Oumou Sangare sound joyous but often express harsh truths, hears Philip Sweeney
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is a very tired Oumou Sangare sitting at the bar of the Ritz in Paris. She's just returned from a promotional visit with the press to her ancestral Wassoulou region of Mali, and tomorrow she's going back to take part in a concert protesting against a proposed dam project which would flood part of the ancient Sahelian mosque town of Djenné. Then she will return for yet more interviews. Sangare has a new record out, a two-CD retrospective called simply Oumou, and in the tough climate of plummeting record sales, it takes hard work to sell records.

Sangare is used to working. Over the course of 13 years, she's made herself one of Mali's top singers and a member of the elite club of blue-chip African artistes on the international festival circuit, wowing festivals such as Womad this summerwith her band's combi- nation of rootsy djembé drums, kamelengoni lute, Wassoulou hunter's flute, and the lead guitar of Baba Salah.

Inspired by her mother, a wedding singer, Sangare joined a professional dance troupe in her teens and then formed her own band under the musical direction of the eminent band leader Amadou Ba Guindo. At 21, she recorded her debut, Moussoulou ("Women") in Abid-jan, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire.

It was a huge hit, and spearheaded a revival of the vibrant, jumpy traditional music of the southern Wassoulou region, which had been long overshadowed by the languorous Manding style. Within a year, Sangare had been signed first by the London African label Sterns and then by World Circuit. "Ali Farka Touré handed me a cassette of Moussoulou," says Nick Gold, boss of World Circuit. "'Ca, c'est de la musique,' he said."

Her next two albums, Ko Sira (1993) and Worotan (1996), produced in Europe, had world music adornments, including the tenor sax of Pee Wee Ellis and a touch of guitar from Nitin Sawhney, and her most recent album, Laban (2001), was recorded in Paris under the direction of the eminent Malian arranger Boncana Maiga. Laban retains a funky Wassoulou base, but adds string sections, keyboards and extra percussion, including drum loops. In a West African record market almost obliterated by pirates, where dirt-cheap copies flood the streets within days of a record's release, Laban achieved the feat of selling 100,000 non-pirated cassettes.

But for all its accessibility, Sangare's music has one vital characteristic lost on international audiences: its lyrical content is about as far from the norms of dance froth as it's possible to get. Sangare's songs deal with social - often feminist - issues such as polygamy, a radical choice of theme in a conservative Muslim country.

"My mother was a second wife, abandoned by my father," she says. "I saw her struggle to survive." The song "Magnoumako" ("Agony") recounts her mother's tribulations. "Polygamy has developed with the complicity of women," she explains, "but only because women in Mali are poor and need financial support. After 10 years, a man wants a new, younger wife, and he's tired of supporting the first one."

Should polygamy be banned, then? "Yes," says Sangare, "ideally. If not, it must be applied in strict accordance with the Koran, which says a man can take up to four wives only if he can keep each in her own house to avoid clashes, and also only if he can love each of the four equally and in the same way. If you find you love one more than another, you go directly to Hell. The Koran is really telling us not to practice polygamy."

Sangare's pronouncements have made her a prophetess among Malian women. Combined with the wealth that the music has brought her, her status makes her a magnet for petitioners, and her progress around Mali is marked by queues of women asking for a job, an introduction, advice with a problem, or a little money.

And what about the men? "They like my music," says Sangare, "they just don't pay attention to the lyrics." Sangare's husband, a sort of Denis Thatcher to the Iron Lady of Wassoulou, supports and helps with her career, and looks after their young son, Cherif. "Ousmane is a product of the same family situation as me: he's seen the misery of polygamy."

Has Sangare ever thought of going into politics? "Never," she says. "While you're an artiste, you're free to say what you think; one you're a politician, it's instructions from higher up."

But the Songbird of Wassou-lou does have a life away from music. A successful business- woman, she is the owner of the 30-room Hotel Wassoulou in Mali's capital, Bamako, a haven for musicians and her own regular performing space. "I helped build the hotel myself.I did it to show women that you can make your life better by working. And many more are working these days, forming co-operatives to make soap or clothes."

'Oumou' is out now on World Circuit