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African Legends

Oumou Sangare

By Tom Orr
Published November 17, 2006

Arguably the best female singer to emerge from Mali, Oumou Sangare showed on her 1990 debut album Moussolou just how much raw power the traditional music of her country could pack.

Beginning with the sound of the kamalengoni, a six-string hunter’s harp, Sangare’s songs were built upon the ancient rhythms of the southern Malian region of Wasulu, setting her emotive, beautifully precise voice amidst sparse but hard arrangements that intensified the already hair-raising tones of the kamalengoni. Guitar, bass, violin, small percussion and female chorus vocals were further defining elements, adding up to tightly wound but lilting music that was a sensation all over West Africa. Sangare’s style came to be known as wassoulou, reflective of the region where it originated.

But it was not simply her embellishing of tradition that put the fire in the music. Sangare boldly sang of such things as sensuality and the ills of polygamy, topics which in an often austere Islamic nation were prickly indeed. (Abandoned by her father at age two and subsequently raised by a single mother who made a living singing at community events, Sangare’s empowered stance came naturally.)

Moussolou was followed in 1993 by the stylistically similar Ko Sira. A third album, 1996’s Worotan, notched things up by adding a harder percussion foundation and, somewhat surprisingly, horns arranged by the great saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis. A delightful wassoulou/funk fusion and one of the most acclaimed African releases of the year, Worotan showed Sangare’s singing to be capable of soaring to new heights.

It’s been pretty quiet on the Oumou Sangare front in the near-decade since then. She’s reportedly been focused on spending more time with her family and making music for her core West African fan base. In 2003 the U.K. label World Circuit (which had put out Sangare’s previous discs internationally) released Oumou, a two-CD set of previously released and new material including some modern dancefloor tracks that hint at what might be in store should Sangare decide to return to a more global audience.

Recommended Recordings

Moussolou (World Circuit)
Worotan (World Circuit)
Oumou (World Circuit)