In the galaxy of West African music, Oumou Sangare really is one of the brightest stars. She was a star in Mali before Nick Gold went to Bamako in 1991. When the World Circuit label founder visited that year, he said he heard the same beautiful voice being played out on cassettes at markets, in cafés, shop stalls, bus stations. All over the city, Oumou Sangare was in the air. “You couldn’t escape that music. And you didn’t want to. It was everywhere. As soon as you left a café where they were playing it, the baton was taken up by a passing car and then the next market stall. I spent that week in Bamako hearing Oumou wherever I went. And I mean everywhere” he says. She was 22. After signing to Gold’s label, Sangare’s debut Moussoulou (‘Women’) became an international phenomenon and, along with Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré, she was an early global ambassador for music from Mali, a country that has more recently given us Amadou & Mariam and Bassekou Kouyaté.
Sangare is gifted with a voice that can ululate like birdsong yet carries with it enormous emotional depth. Her upbringing was anything but easy. With an absent father, and a mother who often had to leave the household when Sangare was a girl, she grew up fast. “I was the mother, I was the father, at the age of 13 I was already head of the family. And that’s what has given me strength in my life. I learnt very early how to be responsible.” At this early age Sangare learnt how to be tenacious, and how to make money. And her greatest resource was her voice. “I’d wait until I heard a djembe…I would throw myself in the middle of the crowd and sing. When I opened my mouth…wow! People would give me coins.” This combination of talent and determination eventually brought Sangare enormous success.
“Since I’d been absent for a while, my intention was to produce something joyful”, she says, then adds, “but in amongst that joy I always take the opportunity to slip in messages that educate my nation and my country.” Part of Sangare’s huge appeal is her ability to simultaneously communicate both traditional and modern themes within her songs. Seya is rich with reference to her family’s Wassoulou culture. Donso is a song about the hunter-warrior caste who used to protect towns in pre-colonial days. Other songs reflect Sangare’s more modern ideas, albeit set in time-honoured themes. Sounsoumba (‘Big tree’) concerns a girl who before marrying was a Sounsoum Ba, a big tree, vibrant and alive, whose many branches signify her many friendships, but once forced into marriage she becomes a lonely, little tree stump.
Sangare’s outspoken campaigns for women’s rights have made her a powerful, if at times controversial, figure in Africa. She is an Ambassador of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as well as other organizations that look for role models who speak out against gender inequality on the continent. “In Mali I became famous for the message contained in my music – the rights of women, the rights of children too.” While there is often a social and political significance to her songs, Sangare’s popularity comes above all from the sheer quality of her music; the rhythms, the melodies, the instrumentation and of course, her extraordinary, deeply moving voice.