Oumou Sangar¨¦: ¡®People don¡¯t need to speak your language to understand what you¡¯re trying to say¡¯
As she releases her new album, ¡®Acoustic¡¯, the celebrated singer tells Roisin O¡¯Connor about her lockdown experience, campaigning for women¡¯s rights, and the music that inspires her
Oumou Sangar¨¦ is fearless. At 52, the Malian artist has confronted kings and defied her country¡¯s restrictive standards for women. Born in Bamako, Mali¡¯s capital, she¡¯s the voice of Africa, one of the continent¡¯s most venerated international stars. Her songs, which tackle polygamy and child marriage while celebrating female empowerment, were radical in the Eighties and remain so now. This Grammy-winning artist is also a powerful business leader, with dealings in the hotel industry and her own car company. For her, though, music will always come first.
I fear that my faltering French and poor phone signal might irk her, but she turns out to be unfailingly patient, even with a three-month-old baby (her granddaughter, who was born in New York) stealing her attention. Sangar¨¦ and members of her family have been stuck there since lockdown measures were enforced, and she is understandably keen to get home. Yet there have been wonderful moments ¨C she enjoys cooking for the children, and listening to them play. ¡°It has been a pleasure to reconnect with this family cocoon,¡± she says, as the baby gurgles away on her lap (¡°see, she¡¯s introducing herself to you¡±). ¡°It¡¯s been a decade since I¡¯ve had such a break. I think this pandemic has enabled us to bring people closer, to put solidarity back at the core of society and think more collectively.¡±
Sangar¨¦¡¯s voice has earnt her the title of ¡°Songbird of Wassoulou¡±, after the historical region where some of Mali¡¯s most important musical traditions were born. She found herself in demand when she began singing with her mother at traditional weddings and baptisms, aged five. After her debut album, 1989¡¯s Moussolou (¡°women¡±) was released, she signed to a record label, World Circuit, and achieved national recognition, aged 21. Melding traditional Wassoulou instruments ¨C the kamal n¡¯goni harp, the djembe drum, the karinyan metal scraper, the calabash (percussion) ¨C with funk guitar, strings, and electronic elements, she successfully honours her heritage while sounding entirely modern.
Her new album, Acoustic, offers beautiful, stripped-down versions of the songs that appeared on her 2017 album, Mogoya (roughly translating to ¡°people today¡±). It¡¯s as intricate an album as you could hope for; without the synths introduced by French production team ALBERT (Vincent Taurelle, Ludovic Bruni and Vincent Taeger), you realise how Sangar¨¦ succeeds in celebrating tradition while embracing the modern. On dynamic opener ¡°Kamelemba¡±, she warns against womanisers over the sharp pluck and twang of the kamele n¡¯goni. ¡°Yere Faga¡±, a song about suicide, takes on a more serious tone in comparison to the original ¨C and ludicrously danceable ¨C version, which featured the late Nigerian drumming legend Tony Allen.
Sangar¨¦ found that the mood of the songs, and her own interpretation of them, changed dramatically by recording them in live conditions ¨C no amplification, and no headphones. ¡°We were between ourselves like a family, in our own bubble playing in front of a small audience,¡± she says, explaining how the unplugged versions allowed more space for her voice, and for each musician. ¡°It brought something very intimate, spontaneous and natural ¨C it was all about letting go. It¡¯s raw!¡±
Sangar¨¦ is still a vocal anti-polygamy campaigner, and famously once performed one of her songs about the issue in front of Mswati III, the king of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and his then-16 wives. She laughs at the memory, although she is stern when she speaks of the men themselves. ¡°Each year they [Mswati and his late father] would take a new wife, so for me this was really the right occasion to speak out about it.¡± In 2002, Mswati III caused uproar and condemnation from Amnesty International when Zena Mahlangu, a then-18-year-old high school girl, was forced to become another of his wives. ¡°It is the worst thing you can do to a woman ¨C treat her like an object or an animal, instead of a human being,¡± Sangar¨¦ says. If the woman consents, she clarifies, she has no issue, but ¡°if the woman doesn¡¯t want to be treated this way, it isn¡¯t normal¡±.
She feels fortunate that people have always paid attention to what she has to say ¨C ¡°it¡¯s a huge privilege¡±. Even at the beginning of her career, when she sang on the streets of Bamako about her mother¡¯s hard life, she recalls moving her audience to tears. ¡°It reflects their own living conditions, and they identify with my stories,¡± she says. Sangar¨¦ was just two years old when her father abandoned her mother, Aminata Diakit¨¦, for a second wife and emigrated to the C?te d¡¯Ivoire. It was Diakit¨¦ ¨C pregnant and already trying to raise Sangar¨¦ and her siblings ¨C who taught Sangar¨¦ how to sing, and from whom she inherited her resilient spirit. Her song, ¡°Minata Waraba¡° (¡°Aminata the Lioness¡±), pays tribute to her mother¡¯s courage. ¡°My mother always gives me advice when I write my songs,¡± she says.
Through her campaigning for women¡¯s rights, Sangar¨¦ realised how music can influence change. Proudly, she lists some of the titles recognising her international work in politics and social issues: FAO Goodwill Ambassador, Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of France¡ ¡°and most importantly, Malian people are still supporting me and listening to my music¡±. She counts Bob Marley and ¡°Mama Africa¡± herself, Miriam Makeba, among her early influences; artists who inspired her with their outspokenness and their triumph through struggle. ¡°As [Makeba] also used the Bambara language, I understood her struggle from a young age,¡± she says. ¡°Another brave woman who continuously fought to change an unjust world.¡±
Anyone who has witnessed Sangar¨¦¡¯s performances, for which she dresses in flowing, traditional robes and towering high heels, will know what a charismatic and majestic presence she is. Her voice has a transcendent quality, capable of conveying a depth of emotion ¨C a soulfulness ¨C that moves the spirit. To her, singing in those supple belts and calls comes as naturally as breathing, and it¡¯s why her music connects with so many people around the world. ¡°When someone sees you play, they don¡¯t need to speak your language to understand what you¡¯re trying to say,¡± she says. ¡°If it¡¯s emotional, people understand it, and if it¡¯s rhythmic and makes you dance, people understand that too. That¡¯s the beauty of music.¡± I sense she¡¯s keen to return to her family so I wrap things up, apologising profusely for my nervous French. ¡°Bravo,¡± she insists, laughing away my insecurity with her warm, rich voice. ¡°Bravo.¡±
Acoustic is out now via N? F?rmat