Oumou Sangare - Reaching the brain through the pelvis
Oumou Sangare remembers when she realised that she had a special voice. As a ten and twelve year old, looking after her younger siblings while her mother was away working in Mali’s neighbouring countries, she would manage the small amount of money she’d been left carefully until it ran out.
Then the young girl, who was father as well as mother to her siblings, would go out into the streets of Bamako, the Malian capital, and wait until she heard the djembe drum that led the wedding crowds in their celebrations. Throwing herself into the middle of the crowd, she’d sing – just as her mother had done when she was young – and when she opened her mouth, the wedding guests gave her coins. Lots of them.
The day her mother came back from her latest trip and found the family all wearing new clothes and sitting down to a meal that Oumou had bought and prepared was the day that the now forty-year old Sangare, whose songs have changed attitudes in her homeland and whose business sense has boosted Mali’s economy by providing employment – she owns an hotel and a car franchise, among other undertakings – knew that she could sing for a living.
“My grandmother was a great singer and I used to go along with my mother when she sang at weddings and baptisms,” she says. “So I acquired a taste for singing pretty quickly. But when I was left alone, in charge of the family, I sang more to console myself. To begin with, I cried a lot and I didn’t want anyone to see my tears. So I’d sing and then I took courage, because I had to look after the family, make sure we were all able to eat, and I’d go out on to the streets and sing. When my mother came back that time and found us sitting down to a lovely meal and wearing brand new clothes, she started to cry because she thought that suffering had forced me to become a singer. But it was in the blood, too.”
At sixteen, Sangare took the first significant step towards the fame she now enjoys at home in Mali and across West Africa. She joined the traditional percussion troupe Djoliba, which also included a young Toumani Diabate, on a tour of Europe. It was, she says, great experience and taught her something vitally important: she needed to find her own style. Up until then she had been singing songs learned from Coumba Sidibe, who pioneered a sound with an emphasis on djembe percussion and electric guitar. Sangare teamed up with a flautist, a percussionist and a kamalengoni (the small, cricket bat-like African lute) player and began writing songs.
The Wassoulou style that she sings in has traditionally addressed social issues but while some sections of Malian society welcomed the messages that Sangare delivered in 1990 on Moussulou, her first cassette – the easiest medium to circulate music in Africa at the time – the more conservative thinkers were appalled by them.
“The idea at the start was, I had something inside” she says. “I wanted to encourage my mother and thank her for having such a strong character. And then, in doing that I also wanted to encourage all women. The basic idea was that even if you were a woman, you could still be someone. Women had this idea that they had to stay in the shadow of their men, you see, and be with them all the time. I said, ‘No! You can even be equal.’ Not beating the breast and saying I’m the toughest woman. But just being yourself, having dignity. In my first album, I incited women to do any kind of work they wanted. I even said, ‘Why not become a policewoman?’ I never expected it to be so successful, although not everyone approved. No, no, no.”
The scandalised elders who frowned on Sangare’s outspokenness were similarly nonplussed by her kalamengoni player, Brehima Diakite’s adaptation of an instrument, previously only played by hunters, into a vehicle for rock ‘n’ roll and they briefly banned the instrument altogether.
Sangare and her band already had their audience, though, and her progress towards superstardom was unstoppable. Two more albums followed, Ko Sira and Worotan, and international touring in their wake showed audiences in the US and Europe why this statuesque and stylish woman had captured hearts across Africa.
With her music selling in vast quantities at home, after 2001’s Laban album Sangare took a break to spend time with her teenage son and to look after her various business interests. As well as building an hotel in response to the Malian government’s appeal for more visitor accommodation during the 2002 African Cup of Nations, she has a farm just outside Bamako that grows maize and oranges and she plays an active role in Mali’s Mother & Child Association, donating milk and rice to mothers in need. She also uses her name to import cars from China that she offers at affordable prices.
Her break from music was by no means complete, however – she sings in her hotel every Saturday when she’s not away touring – and she used the time off the road to develop, at her own pace, the songs for her latest album, Seya.
“I wanted the album to be the best it could possibly be with really strong messages,” she says. “The title track is happy, a celebration, but although things have definitely improved over the past twenty years, there are still things we need to change. And music can change society. My message has evolved over the years. To begin with I concentrated on women’s issues. You know, you can say no to polygamy and no to forced marriage. But we have to keep up the struggle until everyone is equal. What we’re trying to do is to change and influence attitudes, the way people think, by informing and entertaining – not everyone is open to the message, but we give them music that makes them dance and then slip in the message when they least expect it!”
From The Herald, February 25, 2010.