Malian diva Oumou Sangaré is making a long-awaited comeback. Pierre Cuny speaks to her about returning to the recording studio and the themes that inspire her songs
Over the years, the reputation of Oumou Sangaré, one of the greatest living Malian singers, has grown from a socially conscious local artist to a leading African public figure. Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation and a prosperous businesswoman, Oumou has continually maintained the flame of rebellion against injustices. It has always been via music that this figure of African women’s emancipation has transmitted her ideals.
Ever since the elegant reissue last year of Oumou’s successful 1990 recording Moussolou on World Circuit, it was common knowledge in Mali that her new album was on the point of coming out. For fans of the African diva, it was going to be a huge event – not only in Mali but also throughout the continent.
Together with Laurent Bizot, head of No Format!, the French label she has chosen to produce her new musical adventure, Mogoya, Oumou decided to completely shake up her soundscape – very much a conscious decision. She explains: “I selected No Format because they have operated with a large number of African musicians. Laurent has worked for several years with Salif Keita, he knows Malian music very well and he loves black music.” The label also works with other Malian virtuosos such as the supreme kora player Ballaké Sissoko and griot singer Kassé Mady Diabaté, a national treasure in Mali. “Happily, relations with World Circuit and Nick Gold remain solid and we are in complete agreement with this change,” smiles Oumou. Four outstanding albums were produced during 1993 to 2009 with World Circuit, as well as a double-CD compilation, which was released in 2003.
Taking the tapes on which she had been working over the past two years with Swedish producer and bass player Andreas Unge, Oumou travelled to the northern suburb of Paris and met with the three studio magicians who make up the collective known as A.L.B.E.R.T. In their studio jam-packed with sound equipment resembling something like Ali Baba’s cave, the young French musician-producers Vincent Taeger, Vincent Taurelle and Ludovic Bruni had recently completed the last Tony Allen album among other luminaries.
On the strength of her melodies, lyrics and voice alone, the team went to work. Maintaining the essential kamalengoni of Benogo Diakité, the electric guitar of Guimba Kouyaté and occasional drums of Tony Allen, they totally remixed and played over the tapes. Oumou was ecstatic and pushed them to continue. “We did not want Mogoya to sound like something which could have been produced in 1998 or 2000,” explains Bizot. The three musicians advanced with feeling and when they saw that Oumou was confident – telling them to “go for it boys” – they knew they had got it. The result is an album sprinkled with judicious sound effects that creative DJs will undoubtedly be playing to heat up dance floors across the world.
The kamalengoni (or ‘young man’s harp’) propels the sound. This eight-stringed instrument, based on the original Wassoulou ritual hunter’s harp, is the soul of Oumou’s music and her melodies are all accompanied by it. In her concerts Oumou constantly has her eye on the kamalengoni. “Village youngsters who love the rough sound can do anything with it: reggae, funk, rap or blues,” she explains, adding, “good thing that the A.L.B.E.R.T. collective decided to place this instrument in prime position on most of the tracks.”
Clearly in great form, Oumou is holding court at the intimate offices of No Format. With her natural majestic allure, this great lady breathes serenity and goodwill. Actively engaged in international citizen movements and at the head of several successful businesses around Bamako, she still maintains a mischievous, childlike spirit. Her laugh resounds frequently and as she evokes each of her songs you can hear her humming the melodies. Time passes in a most delicious manner.
Eight years have passed since her last studio album, Seya. As Oumou herself explains: “I prepare each song quietly to avoid the stress and take time to think. When my new albums are under preparation, the pressure is unimaginable; everyone is asking, when will it be ready? What will be the theme? My words are extremely important for my fans and so I take time so as not to disappoint them. I create by crafting and caring for my lyrics and do not rush. They are inside of me. At the same time, I have many business occupations: I built a hotel in Bamako, which I manage once again due to the disorder of the team while I was travelling. I also have a large livestock farm with many employees, rice fields and a fish farm, as well as a car dealership. All this while touring incessantly throughout Africa. So I prepare my material slowly avoiding stress and giving me time to think. That is why it has taken so long.”
So that equates to almost one year of work for each of the nine songs on this ambitious album. Like a sage, Oumou’s words offer advice and motivation. She sees her role as trying to diffuse tensions in her country. “I am a Muslim, but certainly not fundamentalist,” she asserts. “I believe in God and respect all other religions and all human beings. I don’t understand the radicalised Muslims. One must respect each other. The songs I write are taken from events in society, events which disturb.”
Despite recent multiple terrorist attacks, Oumou accepted to be godmother to Wassoulou-Ballé, a music festival situated 240km from Bamako. “Our role as an artist is to be with the population, at their side during the most troubled times. Terrorism is at the forefront of everyone’s minds but we must continue to live. Despite the turbulent current situation in Mali, music remains a standing force.”
Speaking of the lyrics featured on Mogoya, which translates as ‘Human Relations Today,’ Oumou describes what she knows best. She is very affected by the tribulations of daily life and specific problems women in Africa face, urging them to overcome their suffering and enjoy life to the full.
One of the most emotional songs on the album is ‘Yere Faga’, sung in Bamana, the vernacular language in Mali. It means suicide. “Suicide has always existed in my country,” she states, “but it is a phenomenon which is increasing alarmingly. People seem to have more and more difficulties that they find overwhelming. I try to tell them to be stronger than the problems and counteract them full on. I have had to face millions of problems in my life, heard so many lies and rumours about myself. I say to people, take example from me and remain strong. The problems will always go away.”
Oumou herself has clearly not been spared from her share of life’s difficulties. Abandoned by her father at a very young age, she possesses a burning ambition to honour her mother who brought up a family of six with no help whatsoever. “My mother – I owe her everything! The force that is in me comes from this brave woman. When my father walked out and went to live in Ivory Coast, it was a catastrophe for us. My mother said to me: ‘Oumou, I have fought alone without compromise, I never sold myself or dirtied my children. I believe in me and in God. It has been so hard but I fought’.” On another very moving song on the album, ‘Minata Waraba’ (Minata the Lioness), Oumou pays homage to her mother, Aminata Diakité.
It was through her mother that Oumou, as a very young child, came to sing. She would accompany her mother at local weddings and baptisms, where Aminata was invited to sing at the ritual services, called soumous. At the age of five, Oumou’s gifted voice, with its strength and clarity, was already the centrepiece of the ceremony. “I had this energy while singing and people would give me money; it would pour from all sides like rain, like an act of God,” she recalls. “I would run home with my T-shirt stuffed with banknotes for my mother!”
Oumou was born in Bamako to a Peul family originating from the forested region of Wassoulou in the south-west of Mali bordering Guinea and Ivory Coast. “Everything was Wassoulou in my home: the mentality, the language, the food,” she says. Her music has a strong connection to the traditions of the brotherhood of hunters of Wassoulou and is primordial in its mentality. It was these same hunters who liberated the country from the oppression of tyranny at the beginning of the 13th century. Their philosophy of freedom centred around their declaration that ‘man is an individual, he is free, his soul lives for three elements: to see what he wants to see, to say what he wants to say, to do what he wants to do.’ This was the basis of the Mande Charter, one of the most ancient constitutions, that dates from the same period as the Magna Carta. The singularity of Oumou is to claim that all Malian women should access this freedom of speech and have the liberty to say no to polygamy and yes to school education.
At the age of 21, Oumou hit the country by storm with her first record, Moussolou. Two of the tracks completely shocked the population of Mali. It was the first time that a female singer had spoken out so freely: ‘Diya Gneba’ encourages women to refuse forced marriage and ‘Diaraby Nene’ openly addresses female desire. Where, I wonder, does this desire for freedom of speech come from? “I am not a griot,” she explains. “A griot addresses only noble or wealthy families. I speak to everyone through my songs, rich or poor, man or woman. I have the right to do it!”
“Women in Mali are traumatised by some of the traditions, such as excision [FGM],” she continues. “It is impossible to make rapid changes to this system and I have to go slowly, explaining and talking regularly about the risks and the suffering that is caused. Everything is done softly and in songs. It is in this way that I am gaining the confidence of women. Once completed, they will stop these traditions. I have faced a lot of social pressure because of this, but things are changing. People are following me now and supporting me.”
As we head into a recording room to listen to her new opus, Oumou beams and whispers “for the moment I dream that Mogoya is played simply in local clubs. The African youth need these sounds to move, to dance!”
On an almost-deserted parking lot outside of Paris, Bizot and his No Format team are speaking of Oumou when a local youth overhears and comes over. “Oumou? Are you speaking about Oumou Sangaré?” Bizot replies, “Yes, we are working on her new album.” Holding his hand gently to his heart, the youth exclaims, “but this is fantastic! Oumou Sangaré is the queen!”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #127. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit: http://ift.tt/2lbcV5M