Malian women are tough, ballsy even. Ballsy and very feminine at the same time. It’s a balancing act that few western divas I know of can pull off without looking as if they’ve used a life-coach and a large mirror. In a country like Mali, groaning at the bottom of the OECD scale of per-capita income and just about every other index of misery which statisticians dream up to bludgeon us into pity, feminine ballsiness is a natural state. You need the toughness to survive, and if you’re a woman, you need the femininity to have a chance of feeling good about yourself.
As the most famous Malian woman alive, Oumou Sangare embodies this alluring dichotomy like no one else. She’s the epitome of tough femininity; beautiful, elegant, determined, independent, talented…and, well, hard. She’s a singing sensation who also runs a business empire comprising a hotel, a farm, and a concession to import the specially branded ‘Oum Sang’ range of 4×4 pick-ups and SUVs from China. Her address book is stuffed with the private numbers of presidents, princes and potentates. She’s the godmother of ‘Case Sanga’, Mali’s answer to the X-Factor. She’s an official ambassador for the UN Food and Agriculture Programme and the unofficial ambassador of both Malian music and Malian womanhood. She’s duetted with Alicia Keys, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Me’shell Ndeogecello. She gets mobbed, petitioned, praised and pursued by fans the world over. Her voice makes you stop the car and peer skywards in wonder.
So, when Oumou Sangare began to cry during our interview, I was not only surprised but also embarrassed, intrigued, even impressed. These were definitely not grandstand tears à la Paltrow or Winslet. They welled slowly, imperceptibly at first, a mild intensification of the glisten in her eyes. Then, as the emotions gathered strength, Oumou gently chided herself for this uncharacteristic breach of her armour, repeating her trademark “wow!” and “I’m sorry, it’s hard hard.” Eventually, after bravely attempting to tough it out, without any superfluous fuss or theatricals, Oumou took herself off for a few minutes, and came back composed.
Until this moment of epiphany, the Songbird of Wassoulou had been talking dutifully and politely about her new album ‘Seya’, a veritable masterpiece in the offing, providing useful if measured insights into her creative methodology and the themes behind each song. She reaffirmed her central message of female pride and empowerment. She reiterated her condemnation of forced marriage, polygamy and the abuse of women, adding that since becoming a mother herself, she also felt a need to bring children and their suffering at the hands of poverty, war and aids into her championing embrace.
The chink came when she was asked to recount her early years in Bamako, the Malian capital. In 1970, when Oumou was two years old, her mother Aminata Diakite, also a renowned singer, had been forced onto the breadline by the cataclysmic decision of her father Sidiki Sangare to take a second wife and move to Abidjan in Ivory Coast.
“One day, when my mother came back from a trip,” Oumou recalled, “she saw that I had managed to clothe all her children in brand new clothes. “Oumou! Where did you find the money to pay for all this?” I answered, “But mum, I sing now. I earn plenty of money in the streets.” My mother started to cry. “That’s incredible,” she said, “It’s suffering that has forced you to become a singer.” It was a very hard childhood, but thanks be to God, all is well now. It gave me an incredible character. I can face up to any obstacle.”
Obstacles there were, and obstacles there continue to be. Oumou knows the darker side of fame all too well. In the chat rooms and blogs of Mali’s papers and magazines, she’s accused of driving one of her backing vocalists insane, acting in a porn film, ignoring the poor of her ancestral Wassoulou region in the south of Mali and even using too many skin-whitening products. All these stories evaporate like volatile poison under the heat of even a cursory investigation.
At the dawn of Oumou’s success, back in 1989, when the young starlet was buzzing around Bamako on her Yamaha Dan motorbike, drunk on life, dizzily riding the enormous wave of popularity unleashed by the release of her first ever album, the revolutionary ‘Moussoulou’, certain shadowy detractors spread rumours that she had died in a road accident. The news almost killed her long-suffering mother. Oumou’s outspoken condemnation of female subservience and her celebration of female pride and joy, even of a sexual kind, obviously twigged the beards of many a hoary old moralist. “But I coped well with success,” Oumou maintains. “I tried to be myself and stay close to womanhood. There were plenty of critics, but it was all very minor compared to the success.”
Oumou turned forty last year and ‘Seya’ wrestles with themes that befit life’s obligatory half-time pep-talk of the soul: destiny, mortality, good and bad fortune, loss, appraisal of the past, hope for the future, deep roots and the green foliage of joy. Sonically, the album is a magnificent reappraisal of the radical blend that made ‘Moussoulou’ such a blast of fresh air more than two decades ago. Then it was the inspired arranger Amadou Ba Guindo who helped Oumou to mix traditional instruments like the kamelngoni harp, the karinyan scraper, the djembe and cowrie-adorned calabash with a funky, modern and exuberantly hopeful approach, kick-starting what came to be known as the ‘Bamako’ sound. ‘Seya’ is this style’s coming of age. The cast of this epic undertaking is so huge that it’s a wonder that producer Nick Gold and arranger Cheikh Tidiane Check managed to hold it altogether, and produce something so raw, so true and so brilliantly focused.
Thanks to the detailed and meticulous translations of the lyrics, ‘Seya’ is also an album full of clues to the cartography of Oumou Sangare’s inner life. This is unusual for music from West Africa. Most of the time, the region doles up funky and mellifluous songs bearing wise axioms and edifying epithets of a universal nature for the general improvement of the populace. The tortuous pilgrimage of the individual soul is never laid bare as it is in our own tradition. ‘Seya’ is exceptional, but subtly so. On the surface it also trades in universalities, but between the lines there lurks a single solitary woman battling with fame, with painful memories and with a difficult daughter-father relationship.
The song ‘Sounsoumba’, for example, compares a young girl who has been forced into a loveless marriage, with a once strong and mighty tree which has been cut down to a pitiful stump. “I have become solitary / I am alone with God / I am crying softly,” Oumou sings. These words echo the pain of her distraught childhood. “Sometimes I would shut myself away,” Oumou remembers. “I would sing to console myself. I had no mother on whose shoulder I could rest my head for comfort. There were no stories at bedtime. So I sang. And I cried a lot.”
Oumou is also painfully aware of both the fragility and responsibility of fame. In the song ‘Kounadya’ she affirms again and again, almost as if to annihilate any hint of base arrogance in herself, that fortune is given by God and “your lucky star”. “You can lose your lucky star / Or you can take care of it / You must not spoil it.” When I asked Oumou if she applied this lesson to herself, her response was swift, betraying the slightest hint of resentment that I should even think otherwise. “Absolutely!” she exclaims. “I begin with myself. I try to show a good example. I thank God for this fortune, and I try and help younger artists move up the ladder in an attempt to give benefit t those who haven’t had the kind of opportunities I have.”
Perhaps the most fascinating song on the album, both musically and lyrically, is ‘Donso’. This smouldering crawling bluesy number pays tribute to the traditional hunters of the lush Wassoulou region where Oumou’s parents originate. These revered men were not only providers, warriors and protectors, but also healers, philosophers and musicians. Through a deep contemplation of the nobility of this hunting caste Oumou manages to reinstate a positive view of manhood in her own psyche, thereby healing the massive wound caused by her own father’s betrayal and abandonment. This wound, and the pain and anger that it generated, have hitherto defined Oumou’s music and her lifelong mission to champion the cause of women.
In 2005 Oumou’s father was killed in a car crash. Before he died, Oumou managed to reconcile herself with him, buying him a house and paying for his pilgrimage to Mecca in the process. She found out that he wasn’t quite the demon of her younger imagination, and had in fact lived a quiet and gentle life as an imam in Abidjan. ‘Donso’ celebrates this reconciliation, albeit obliquely. “What does death teach us / The best way to live is with wisdom / because we all die in the end,” she sings. “I praise my father Bari Sangare / Passing on is not the hardest thing / Passing on without leaving anything behind, that’s what’s the hardest / Now Bari Sangare rests in peace.”
‘Seya’, which means ‘joy’, is the guarantor of Oumou’s own legacy. It’s an album full of courage; courage to be honest, to forgive, to be wise and to move on.
Andy Morgan, (c) 2009
First published in The Independent – January 2009