Tumbling to the beat of a different drum

If it's not Manding, it must be Wassoulou - as sung by Oumou Sangare, Mali's newest music star.
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The Independent Culture
The New Morning jazz club, Paris, last month, the gorgeously clad Oumou Sangare and band on stage. A sprinkling of Malians in the audience, but relatively well heeled ones at 110 francs entrance. Lots of European media, because this show launches Sangare's new album, her fourth, and the one which could secure her as Mali's third intercontinental success, after Salif Keita's Manding rock and Ali Farka Toure's Ry Cooder-assisted Sahelian delta blues. (Paris-based Keita, incidentally, is in the New Morning dressing room to salute his compatriot, and Toure, though physically home on the farm near Timbuktoo, is present symbolically as new majority owner of EMI Mali, Sangare's West African record company.)

Since 1989 and her hit debut album Mossolou, Sangare has been Mali's biggest female singing star, and her success has confirmed the recent ascendancy of the Wassoulou style over the long dominant Manding music of Keita. Manding song, though latterly conflated into a thing of bombast and fury by Keita, is essentially languorous, heptatonic, performed by traditional caste musicians and devoted to praise of the deeds and genealogies of great patrons. The Wassoulou style, from southern Mali, is distinctively pentatonic, freer and more exciting, lyrically concerned with social commentary and linked historically to harvest festivals and hunting dances.

Though Sangare is not a purely traditional singer - she was born in the capital Bamako, writes her own songs and developed her hybrid instrumentation - the music contains components forged in the crucible of practical village function, and it shows. There is the clatter of the djembe drum, the double- time clapping and the surprising hiss and slap of the cowrie-draped calabashes thrown rhythmically into the air and caught by the two young Oumettes (Sangare's niece and cousin respectively carry all the excitement of the masked harvest dance from which they originate).

The West African musical landscape was never just hunting parties and harvest festivals, of course. In 1968, the year of Sangare's birth, it was also the James Brown band wowing the continent on his first tour. Sangare's new record reflects this with a subtle funkily integrated guest brass section led by Brown's old band leader, the saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis. Live, the same degree of empathy is displayed by Sangare's young guitarist, Baba Salah, all clipped, jumpy solos and contortionist Hendrix impressions, who turns out to be a vacationing second-year music student from Mali's National Arts Institute, snapped up by Sangare after a TV appearance performing his own songs. ("So Baba Salah's quite a budding star himself?" I ask Sangare later in her hotel room. "No," replies the prima donna. "Well, he'd made some sort of TV appearance ... he was so thrilled when I called him.")

What does Sangare sing about? The problems of life, especially women's problems. They are West Africa-specific (such as the tendency of men to give their youngest wives the best food and clothes), but recognisable to female listeners in St Cloud or Islington.

Signs from the Paris show, and the new record, produced in London with customary unobtrusive finesse by World Circuit Records, are good. There is a distinct possibility that Sangare will retain her West African audience and capture a new European one with the same uncompromised sound. The former is already in the bag - the record came out in Africa a couple of months ago. European Maliphiles who learnt Manding to listen to Keita and Songhai for Farka Toure will now have to master a third language - Bambara, to follow Sangare, but hell, you don't get anything for nothing.

Oumou Sangare's new album, 'Worotan', is out today

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