OumouSangare - Songbird of Wassoulou

While the world goes Gaga over the Beyonce’s, the Rhianna’s and the like, I ask myself why I am drawn to such artists as Oumou Sangare (I also mention Ethiopia’s Gigi Ejigayehu Shibabaw in the same breath). Though her music embraces elements of pop, Oumou Sangare still retains much of her traditional Wassoulou roots and instrumentation, a fine balance I find truly appealing.  I love her songs, the overall sound she and her band creates, at its core the kamele n’ goni, djembe, the rich, nuanced timbre of her voice and the almost wail-like harmonizing of her backing singers, especially in a song such as ‘Sukunyali’, one of many that simply gives me goose-bumps. There is an intense beauty not only in her music and her soulful yet powerful voice but also in Oumou Sangare as a person. From the upbeat, rhythmic songs such as ‘Wele Wintou’, ‘Baba’ and ‘Seya’ to the slower, melancholy tunes such as ‘Djorolen’ (which, sadly, she didn’t perform on the night) and ‘Kun Fe Ko’, she mesmerizes and captivates an audience visually and aurally. When finally presented with the Grammy for her album ‘Seya’ at the end of the show at the Barbican Thursday night, she came across as an incredibly humble person, demonstrated particularly by her willingness to acknowledge (onstage) the contribution of every single member of her band. She became frustrated and embarrassed at her own perceived inability to communicate with her largely English audience (I understood sufficient French to largely get the gist of it). Despite this appealing vulnerability, she’s an enormous presence and personality onstage and therefore still manages to get her message across, notably when communicating and singing passionately about women’s rights in a largely patriarchal society, where, according to the concert program, she made such an enormous impact in Mali, causing a sensation with her debut release ‘Moussoulou’ (Women), claiming to have “seen a big change in attitudes over the years”. To quote a further review of one of her concerts: “She’s even more effective onstage than on disc: nearly six feet tall even without her headdress, she can communicate both gravity and joy, outrage and sensuality, and she’s usually flanked by charismatic women whose singing and dancing redouble her exhortations”. The arguably staged incident aside, when she was showered with £10 notes by a male member of the audience, the most exquisite moment occurred during ‘Seya’, when hordes of (mostly) women, some sporting bright, colourful Malian-fashion dresses, ascended the stage at her invitation, each warmly embraced by “The Songbird of Wassoulou” herself. Among them stood a little child, startled, her wide-eyed innocence expressing her bewilderment of events around her. Sitting dead-centre four rows from the front myself, I too was beguiled, entertained and hope that I do not have to wait too long for her next album or performance.

Clips worth watching:

‘Sounsoumba’ (live) on Jools Holland

Bela Fleck & Oumou Sangaré – ‘Djorolen’

Oumou Sangaré talks about her principles

Oumou Sangaré at the GrassRoots Festival

‘Sukunyali’, a track from her Grammy award cd ‘Seya’

Oumou Sangaré sings the title track to ‘Seya’

Oumou Sangare features on Herbie Hancock’s interpretation of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’.