Oumou Sangaré, whose family comes from the Wassolou region of southern Mali (she was actually born in the nation’s capital, Bamako), is not one of those world music cheerleaders who exhort listeners to get up and dance. Backed by violin, the lute-like kamelengoni and minimal percussion, she creates processional chants and arresting call-and-response episodes from regal, serpentine melodies. More important, she’s an activist. Her songs champion the cause of women in Mali, speaking out against the still-common practice of polygamy, decrying the edicts of the “wise men” who rule many provinces there. This lyrical stance has made Sangaré a celebrity in West Africa: months after her first cassette, Moussolou, was released in 1990, her blend of traditional musical signatures and revolutionary themes became an electrifying force in Malian cultural politics.
Moussolou, which was released in Europe and the US in 1991, shows why. It’s a thoroughly mature opening statement, a gloriously original alternative to the rhythm emphasis of West African pop. Its spare instrumentation gives the improvisation-minded singer a wide berth: on “Diya Gneba,” her voice dives and shimmies and moans, sometimes insisting on the spotlight but just as often recoiling from it. Leading her supporting vocalists through tricky phrases that suggest ritual chants, Sangaré is, at 23, supremely assured about her powers. She’s a vocalist who, in the griot tradition, does more than merely entertain. She educates.
Ko Sira (Marriage Today) exhibits further refinement. Sangar‚ shouts less, and is more inclined to let her nimble, rhythmically exacting musicians fill in the spaces between pronouncements — there are more solos than on Moussolou, and each is magnetic. Her songs pay homage to spirits, offer advice to a new bride, discuss the homesickness of touring and warn of the tricks of womanizers. But none feel preachy: because she’s passionate about her message and firm in her beliefs, Sangaré makes everything she sings sound like an epic battle for the soul, and leaves no doubt about which side she’s on.