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[Ethnomusicology] Oumou Sangare

"Dia nana, Oumou nana, wassoulou kono kan bora"... "Time for pleasure, Oumou is here! Listen to the songbird from Wassoulou..."

In May 2017, the reigning queen of Wassoulou music - Oumou Sangare, released her fifth studio album, Mogoya (roughly translated as People Today) once again seamlessly combining tradition with bold, transformative creativity. An internationally renowned singer, composer, business pioneer and activist, above all else Sangare is a ‘kono’ (songbird). The songbird in Mali is symbolic of freedom, wisdom and truth. As a songbird (kono) “In Wassoulou, we sing to advise people, to educate through music.”

An icon of femininity and freedom of spirit, Sangare’s messages are as strong as ever. Drawing particularly upon themes of feminism, love and freedom, she has been singing about the injustices women face across the world since she exploded onto the scene in the 80’s.

The album itself is rich with wisdom and ire. ‘Kamelemba’ is a powerful takedown of playboys and womanisers for, underpinned by sweet talking electric guitar, for ‘the ladies man will give you the runaround,’ (song lyrics, Kamelemba). Title track, ‘Mogoya’ reflects upon the breakdown of human relationships in the aftermath of Mali’s 2012-2013 political crisis. Sangare’s vocals lilt onwards to a driving bassline, with ambient, spacious strings echoing across the chorus...

‘Fadjamou’ (Family Name) is a hymn to the extended clans of the Mande region, driven by a fast, funky bounce and swells of organ. While ‘Yere Faga’ (suicide) is a poignant plea for those who have lost all hope to reconsider things, featuring the pioneering Nigerian Afrobeat drumming legend, Tony Allen. It opens with two iconic sounds, Sangare’s nightingale voice and his signature slinky shuffle.

Sangare’s style is primarily Wassoulou. A popular musical genre rooted in folklore and tradition and birthed largely underground in the aftermath of Mali’s newfound independence in 1958. It was a voice of young people and women, and though it was not overtly political it was viewed as socially subversive by the Malian government. The strong social messages of Wassoulou were "not always what people in power wanted to hear" (Diallo interview 1995). Two decades later in the capital of Mali, Bamako, Oumou Sangare recorded her spectacular debut album Moussolou (1989) (meaning ‘Women’) at only 20 years old. The album was a big hit in West Africa, and Oumou became a global superstar soon after. Since then, she has been singing songs of love, wisdom and revolt against the patriarchal customs that oppress women across the world and in Mali: arranged marriages, polygamy, womanisers, servitude as a wife, and the sale of brides for “ten kola nuts,” known as Worotan.

Sangare created the album Mogoya to rejuvenate the Wassoulou sound and reach new audiences. In 2016, she began to collaborate with young producers across Sweden and France. This subtle fusion of her west African sound with increscent European electronica can be heard throughout Mogoya, which marked an eight year hiatus since her last album. ‘Djoukourou’ / Support tumbles in 12/8 with rock drenched, Serge Gainsbourg style electric guitar and echo-drenched backing vocals.

For Sangaré, Mogoya was crafted to appeal to the “young people in Mali but being careful, all the while, to respect my culture and tradition.” The maternal, emotive vocals of ‘Mali Niale’ plead young Malians not to give up on their country and to help nurture its contemporary spirit. This spirit of tradition and change is intrinsic to Wassoulou music and Sangare’s own approach to life.

Wassoulou’s musical roots lie in three genres that are characteristic of the Wasulu region: kamalengoni, (youth stringed instrument) didadi (female harvest and fertility dance from the eastern part of Wasulu) and sogoninkun (​​fast tempo masquerade ritual dance). Kamelengoni is the six stringed youth harp, derived from the donsongoni (hunters string instrument) believed to carry nyama (occult force, energy). Taken out of this context by the youth, the kamelengoni becomes a playful, romantic and rebellious version of the hunter’s harp. Mogoya features the playful and loping kamelengoni on both Bena Bena and Kamelemba.

Rooted in nostalgic tradition, transformative and contemporary in nature, Mogoya carries the essence of Wassoulou music into the future with consistent fluidity. It’s an album omnipresent in symbolism, wise in its reflective presence. At once forward moving and pulling back. Raw vocal ecstasy fuses with subtle electronica and the Wassoulou style resonates. Mogoya’s fast tempos, youthful dance-based grooves and tinges of afro–psychedelic funk all support one of the most powerful voices in African music as she continues to inspire the future of Malian music.

Check Oumou live below:


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