The songbird of Mali

The songbird of Mali

singer extraordinaire

The songbird of Mali

The musicians take to the stage and get into their act; a hushed silence prevails with eyes in anticipation. Then a soaring voice fills the air. Follows a towering six footer in a glossy, flowing boubou and headwrap, bejewelled in glittery necklace and bracelets, tossing and spinning an equally decorative cowrie-shell-embedded percussive calabash on hand... a thundering applause erupts. It takes a while for the fans to get centred, as the men are in awe of her stage presence and charisma while women are under a spell. This scenario gets repeated no matter where she performs.

Often referred to as the Diva of Mali, Oumou Sangare is the most sought-after female act in the world music circuit ever since she made her entry over two decades now. But her early life in one of the poorest countries in Africa was not as colourful as her stage entry. When Oumou was two years old, her father left for another woman, leaving behind his children and wife to fend for themselves.

Father’s leaving, single-woman household, combined with poverty would have a deep resonance in her lyrics in the coming years. Oumou’s mother was singing at weddings and was barely managing to keep the family afloat. Oumou joined her mother when she turned five and was beginning to catch attention with her innate talent. By the age of 13, she was the breadwinner of the family. And by 18, she was chosen as the youngest vocalist in a troupe that toured Europe. Boosted by the response on the tour, on return, she formed her own band and started performing in Mali.

Musical discovery

Over 20 years ago, knowing my interest in African music, a friend let me borrow recordings of a compilation of relatively new artistes out of Africa. On giving it a listen, the song Ah ndiya (love) stirred something deep in me for its unique and unadulterated musical roots, which I would later learn had elements of Wassoulou sounds, a historical region in south-west Mali where Oumou came from. She was not known in the West as yet. But that song on love was the beginning of my long journey with this incredible artiste, which later would culminate in visiting her hometown, concerts and interactions across the continents — the last being a month ago at Fes, Morocco, where she was invited to perform at the Festival of World Sacred Music. “Yes, it was in 1989 we travelled to Abidjan to record our first album ‘Moussolou’ (Women) that had this hit number you liked and it was the week of my 21st birthday,” she said.

‘Moussolou’ sold over 2,50,000 copies, not including bootlegs, and turned out West Africa’s top seller for the year. “I could never forget that day as it changed my life forever,” she said. Her songs in Wasulunka, similar to widely spoken Bambara, touched on subjects that were not ‘public’ until then in male-dominated, conservative West African societies. The songs had strong messages on polygamy, arranged and forced marriages, encouraging women to seek freedom and even on female sensuality. “Though songs on love were common before, it was the first time on lust,” she said.

Obviously, such a revolutionary album became a subject of endless debate and played in ‘repeat’ mode at homes, markets, cafes, shops, nightclubs, taxis and buses. The album was also notable for Oumou’s adoption of her own traditional native sounds delivered with funky creative beats so that her message would have a wider reach. She also made Kamalen n’goni, a modified version of Wassoulou-hunter’s harp called Donso n’goni, a permanent part of her boisterous band that has since gained popularity among other artistes.

It wasn’t long before the news of this musical sensation reached across the oceans, when World Circuit of UK signed her up in 1992. I recall her first US gig in an obscure nightclub, which then transformed into larger halls and multiple venues on subsequent tours. She has recorded seven albums under WC label and done endless tours across the world. In these albums she continued to sing on issues close to her heart, encouraging better conditions for women in the society. “It is constant tours that keep me from recording more albums as I spend more time on ‘writing’ because lyrics are more important for me than melody,” she said.

In her music, she uses both traditional instruments and electric guitars and basses, without getting in each other’s way. In her songs, she describes herself as ‘Sangare Kono’, meaning Sangare the songbird, a privilege a musician has to challenge and comment on life. During the last 20 years, she has seen many changes. In her words, “Women are more progressive now in Mali; I as an artiste feel more free to express myself than I started out; a country cannot move forward unless it gives its women her space.” She feels that she has played her little part in bringing about the changes in the mindset of the society. “I feel I’m here on a mission, and this takes priority even over my personal life,” she told me during a casual chat in her hotel room at Fes.

It is not uncommon to find other celebrity artistes at Oumou’s shows in the West, like Grammy-winning star Alicia Keys, with whom she has collaborated for a French TV production, and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who would sit along with her fans. She has performed at some of the prominent festivals and venues that include Melbourne Opera, Roskilde Festival, WOMAD, Festival d’Essaouira, Opera de la monnaie of Brussels, Fes Festival of World Sacred Music and Oslo World Music Festival. Her show at WOMAD was hailed by the critics as one of the best in the festival history. Not many understand what she sings, yet they are swayed by her magic.

She was invited along with names like Tracy Chapman to perform for ‘Global Divas’ at the Hollywood Bowl, and she also performed at Harvard University’s celebration to mark the 60th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Her honours include ‘Commander of the order of arts and letters of France’, goodwill ambassador of FAO of UN and ‘International Music Prize’ by UNESCO for her contribution to music, peace and international co-operation.

Her album ‘Seya’ was nominated for the Grammy award under Best contemporary World Music album in 2010, and in 2011 she won the Grammy for Best Pop collaboration with vocals in Imagine, a work of American composer Herbie Hancock. Oumou collaborated with many artistes  — American banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and Jazz musician Dee Dee Bridgewater are among them. She sang on the soundtrack of Oprah Winfrey’s film, Beloved.

Oumou Sangare is listed in the top 40 powerful celebrities of Africa by Forbes. Besides being a musician, she is a dynamic business woman. She runs a 4-star hotel by the name of Wassoulou, a fleet of Oum Sang taxis, her own brand of cars imported from China, and a 10-hectare farm. “I like creating employment for Africans; not many are born under a lucky-star and if you are, you need to help.” Oumou Sangare Rice is also in the market. She claims she doesn’t make any money out of it as her name helps sell Malian rice.

Memorable gesture

Once she was taking me to show her farm. She asked the driver to pull over to buy a carton of milk on the street-side. As soon as the unsuspecting vendor realised who she was selling it to, Oumou’s car was mobbed with chants of her name.

She may have a superstar status, but she always stays close to her humble beginnings. She is not a male-bashing feminist as some might conclude, because she upholds the tradition in her songs and denounces women who are not serving the husband and the family with loyalty, and asks mothers to prepare their daughters well before getting them married. In spite of her busy day, my bottle of water to last till the airport was packed — Oumou is very proud of her African hospitality and certainly walks the talk!

Having worked with musicians of Indian origin such as Trilok Gurtu and Nitin Sawhney, she declared, “I would love to perform in India and hope that will happen when my next album is out.” And the album is expected very soon.

We wait for the day when this champion of women’s rights and one of the astounding voices in world music lands on our shore.