Malian women are tough, even ballsy. Ballsy and very feminine at the same time. It's a balancing act that few western divas I know of can pull off without looking as if they've used a life-coach and a large mirror. In a country like Mali, groaning at the bottom of the UN Human Development Report's scale of per-capita income – and just about every other index of misery which statisticians dream up to bludgeon us into pity – feminine ballsiness is natural. You need the toughness to survive, and if you're a woman, you need the femininity to have a chance of feeling good about yourself.
As the most famous Malian woman alive, Oumou Sangare embodies this alluring dichotomy like no one else. She's the epitome of tough femininity: beautiful, elegant, determined, independent, talented ... and, well, hard. She's a singing sensation who also runs a business empire comprising a hotel, a farm, and a concession to import the specially branded "Oum Sang" range of 4x4 pick-ups and SUVs from China. She's an official ambassador for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the unofficial ambassador of both Malian music and womanhood. She's duetted with Alicia Keys, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Me'shell Ndegeocello. She gets mobbed, petitioned, praised and pursued by fans the world over. Her voice makes you stop the car and peer skywards in wonder.
So, when Oumou Sangare began to cry during our interview, I was not only surprised but also embarrassed, intrigued, even impressed. These were definitely not grandstand tears à la Paltrow or Winslet. They welled slowly imperceptibly at first, a mild intensification of the glisten in her eyes. Then, as the emotions gathered strength, Oumou gently chided herself for this uncharacteristic breach of her armour, repeating her trademark "Wow!" and "I'm sorry, it's hard." Eventually, after bravely attempting to tough it out, without any superfluous fuss or theatricals, she took herself off for a few minutes, and came back composed.
Until this moment of epiphany, the "songbird of Wassoulou" had been talking dutifully and politely about her new album Seya, a veritable masterpiece in the offing, providing useful if measured insights into her creative methodology and the themes behind each song. She reaffirmed her central message of female pride and empowerment. She reiterated her condemnation of forced marriage, polygamy and the abuse of women, adding that, since becoming a mother herself, she has also felt a need to champion the plight of children affected by poverty, war and Aids.
The chink came when she was asked to recount her early years in Bamako, the Malian capital. In 1970, when Oumou was two years old, her mother, Aminata Diakite, also a renowned singer, was forced on to the breadline by the cataclysmic decision of her father Sidiki Sangare to take a second wife and move to Abidjan in Ivory Coast.
"One day, when my mother came back from a trip," Oumou recalled, "she saw that I had managed to clothe all her children in brand new clothes. 'Oumou! Where did you find the money to pay for all this?' I answered, 'But mum, I sing now. I earn plenty of money in the streets.' My mother started to cry. 'That's incredible,' she said, 'It's suffering that has forced you to become a singer.' It was a very hard childhood, but thanks be to God, all is well now. It gave me an incredible character. I can face up to any obstacle."
Obstacles there were, and obstacles there continue to be. Oumou knows the darker side of fame all too well. In the chat rooms and blogs of Mali's papers and magazines, she's been accused of driving one of her backing vocalists insane, acting in a porn film, ignoring the poor of her ancestral Wassoulou region in the south of Mali and even using too many skin-whitening products. All these stories evaporate under even a cursory investigation.
At the dawn of Oumou's success, back in 1989, when the young starlet was buzzing around Bamako on her motorbike, drunk on life, dizzily riding the wave of popularity unleashed by the release of her first album, the revolutionary Moussoulou, certain shadowy detractors spread rumours that she had died in a road accident. The news almost killed her long-suffering mother. Oumou's outspoken condemnation of female subservience and her celebration of female pride and joy, even of a sexual kind, obviously twigged the beards of many a hoary old moralist. "But I coped well with success," Oumou maintains. "I tried to be myself and stay close to womanhood. There were plenty of critics, but it was all very minor compared to the success."
Oumou turned 40 last year and Seya wrestles with themes that befit life's obligatory half-time pep-talk of the soul: destiny, mortality, good and bad fortune, loss, appraisal of the past, hope for the future, deep roots and the green foliage of joy. Musically, the album is a magnificent reappraisal of the radical blend that made Moussoulou such a blast of fresh air more than two decades ago. Then it was the inspired arranger Amadou Ba Guindo who helped Oumou to mix traditional instruments – such as the kamelengoni harp, the karinyan scraper, the djembe drum and cowrie-adorned calabash – with a funky, modern and exuberantly hopeful approach, kick-starting what came to be known as the Bamako sound. Seya is this style's coming of age. The cast of this epic undertaking is so huge that it's a wonder that producer Nick Gold and arranger Cheikh Tidiane Seck managed to hold it together and produce something so raw, so true and so brilliantly focused.
Thanks to the detailed and meticulous translations of the lyrics, Seya is an album full of clues about Oumou Sangare's inner life. This is unusual for music from West Africa. Most of the time, the region doles up funky and mellifluous songs bearing wise axioms and edifying epithets of a universal nature for the general improvement of the populace. The tortuous pilgrimage of the individual soul is never laid bare as it is in our own tradition. Seya is exceptional, but subtly so. On the surface, it also trades in universalities, but between the lines there lurks a single solitary woman battling with fame, with painful memories and with a difficult daughter-father relationship.
The song "Sounsoumba", for example, compares a young girl who has been forced into a loveless marriage, with a once strong and mighty tree which has been cut down to a pitiful stump. "I have become solitary/ I am alone with God/ I am crying softly," Oumou sings. These words echo the pain of her childhood. "Sometimes I would shut myself away," Oumou remembers. "I would sing to console myself. I had no mother on whose shoulder I could rest my head for comfort. There were no stories at bedtime. So I sang. And I cried a lot."
Oumou is also aware of the fragility and responsibilities of fame. In the song "Kounadya" she affirms, as if to annihilate any hint of arrogance in herself, that fortune is given by God and "your lucky star". "You can lose your lucky star/ Or you can take care of it/ You must not spoil it." When I asked Oumou if she applied this lesson to herself, her response was swift, betraying the slightest hint of resentment that I should even think otherwise. "Absolutely!" she exclaims. "I begin with myself. I try to show a good example.I thank God for this fortune, and I try and help younger artists move up the ladder, in an attempt to give benefit to those who haven't had the kind of opportunities I have."
Perhaps the most fascinating song on the album is "Donso". This smouldering bluesy number pays tribute to the traditional hunters of the Wassoulou region. These revered men were not only warriors and protectors, but also healers, philosophers and musicians. Through a contemplation of the nobility of this hunting caste Oumou manages to reinstate a positive view of manhood, thereby healing the wound caused by her father's abandonment. The pain and anger that it generated have hitherto defined Oumou's music and her mission to champion the cause of women.
In 2005 Oumou's father was killed in a car crash. Before he died, Oumou managed to reconcile herself with him, and found out that he wasn't quite the demon of her younger imagination. "Donso" celebrates this reconciliation, albeit obliquely. "I praise my father Bari Sangare/ Passing on is not the hardest thing/ Passing on without leaving anything behind, that's what's the hardest/ Now Bari Sangare rests in peace."
Seya, which means "joy", is the guarantor of Oumou's legacy. It's an album full of courage – courage to be honest, to forgive, to be wise and to move on.
'Seya' is out 23 February on World Circuit
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