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Oumou Sangare

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  • January 18, 2013

    In response to the current situation in Mali, Fatoumata Diawara has gathered together over 40 of Mali’s most renowned musicians in a studio in Bamako to record a song and video calling for peace titled "Mali-ko" (Peace / La Paix). Known collectively as Voices United for Mali, the group includes Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate, Afel Bocoum, Bassekou Kouyate, Vieux Farka Toure, and others. Watch the video and read the lyrics and their translation here.

  • September 10, 2012

    Emmylou Harris, Rokia Traoré, Fatoumata Diawara, and Oumou Sangare are participating in 30 songs / 30 days, in which female musicians from around the world have come together to support the Half the Sky movement. Through the 30 songs / 30 days project, one song per day is available to download for the month of September and leading up to the October 1 & 2 premiere of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a four-hour PBS documentary inspired by the widely acclaimed book of the same name by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. 

  • about Oumou Sangare

    Sangare kono—Sangare the Songbird. This is how Oumou Sangare, Mali’s great diva, champion of women’s rights, and one of the world’s most astounding female voices, describes herself when she sings her powerful songs that strike deep in the heart.
    In Mali, to call oneself a “songbird” is a special privilege of musicians who come from the southern region known as Wasulu*. A songbird (kono) uses music to challenge and comment on life as it really is. And no one does this quite like Sangare the Songbird.

    Oumou Sangare draws deep from the wealth of musical traditions of southern Mali. She comments on all aspects of life in her country, especially the problems that women face on a daily basis because of polygamy, but also on the sensuality of young love, on the pain of exile, on the need to cultivate the land, and on the frailty of human life.

    Some of her songs use metaphor and irony; others are more direct. They are spirited expressions of her own philosophy and wisdom, born from her experience growing up in a poor family in Bamako and being catapulted to stardom at only the age of 21. And her idiom is the hauntingly beautiful homegrown music that has become her trademark: wassoulou.

    Since its independence in 1960, Mali has been at the forefront of Africa’s most dynamic musical trends. Mali’s dance bands led the way with their blend of local griot songs mixed with Cuban, Congolese, and other international styles. But in the late 1980s a new music came along to challenge these styles and this was wassoulou.

    Wassoulou music is based on the fabulous song and dance traditions of Wasulu, a remote and densely wooded region in southern Mali. In the 1950s, in the villages, the youth created this style out of the songs of the ancient hunters’ societies and made it their own. At first, the elders opposed it furiously as “bordello” music, comparing the main instrument, the six-string harp, to a bed bug because of its nervous rhythms that made young people dance frenetically as if bitten.

    By the late 1970s wassoulou had begun to emerge as a new popular style in Bamako among migrant communities from the region. It received the stamp of approval when the government-sponsored Ensemble National Instrumental recruited two singers from the region, Coumba Sidibe and Sali Sidibe, into the group. Wassoulou was very different from the prevailing griot-based music of the dance bands. It had strong, hypnotic dance rhythms and the lyrics talked about general aspects of life in contemporary Mali. But Sangare the Songbird took all this much further than anyone else when she broke onto the scene in 1990 with her debut album, Moussolou (Women).

    Not only was there a new bold rhythm and musical color that took dance floors by storm on this album, but the record launched the voice of a gifted young woman with immense charisma. And in her music she had a personal mission—to improve the subservient position of women in Mali. Realizing that she could not change the mind-set of the elders, Sangare addressed Mali’s unmarried youth. In a country where traditionally the young have no say, her songs were radical, passionate, and electrifying.

    Born and raised in Bamako, Sangare had a natural gift for singing. Her musical inspiration was her mother, a singer from Wasulu who was steeped in the age-old regional styles such as the profound and sacred hunters’ music, and the frenetic djembe rhythms of acrobatic masquerades such as the sigi (buffalo) and the sogoninkun (little antelope’s head).

    But when Sangare was only two years old, her father took a second wife and emigrated to Côte d’Ivoire, abandoning Sangare’s mother, who was pregnant at the time, and their three small children. Sangare’s earliest memories are of her mother weeping. The struggle to keep the family afloat was the backdrop to her childhood. As a singer, her mother’s main source of income was the sumu (wedding and baptism celebrations organised by women that take place in the courtyards and streets), but she was often too exhausted or depressed to accept engagements. Sangare accompanied her mother to the sumus from the age of five, and very soon was in demand in her own right. She thrilled in the atmosphere of these parties (as she puts it, “singing in the streets”), fired in equal measure by her passion for wassoulou music and by her desire to help her mother out by earning a little extra cash. Sangare soon became the family breadwinner.

    Heard at one of these parties, she was recruited at age sixteen to join a short-lived but important group called Djoliba Percussions with whom she toured Europe in her first trip out of Mali. Following her acclaim as that band’s lead soloist, she decided to form her own group and for two years rehearsed under the tutelage of bass player and arranger Amadou Ba Guindo (leader of Mali’s legendary dance band National Badema).

    In 1989, after some persuasion, and wary of the pitfalls that could await her if the album was not successful, she recorded her first album Moussolou. She was 21 years old. It was recorded in Abidjan and released on January 4, 1990, and it took West Africa by storm.

    Her songs talked openly about subjects that had never before been expressed in public in this fundamentally conservative society, such as female sensuality, in her stunning hit song “Diaraby Nene” (the shivers of love). All the more remarkable because of her chosen idiom—that of hunters’ music.

    For hundreds of years, until the beginning of the 20th century with French colonial rule, it was Mali’s hunters who were the protectors of the villages, the providers of food, and the healers. Still today they occupy a special place deep in the Malian psyche. They spend long periods in the bush and they know the healing properties of plants and trees. They are healers and philosophers. Their music, played on a special six-string harp, is believed to have magic powers that can protect hunters and tame even the most dangerous of animals.

    Sangare’s vision from the outset was to bring the power and charm of this music into her own songs. The kamalengon i—a youth version of the hunter’s harp—is the instrument that she chose as the key sound in her group. Its nervous jittery rhythms and groove, underpinned by the compulsive iron scraper of the hunters - resonate with all kinds of popular styles, such as funk, rhythm and blues, and afrobeat. In addition, she used a violin, emulating the mournful sound of the one-string fiddle of Wasulu. But most important of all, her songs talked from the perspective of a young unmarried woman, in ways that no other Malian artist had ever dared to do before.

    The album Moussolou was an unprecedented success throughout West Africa and catapulted Sangare to stardom. It also attracted the attention of Nick Gold of World Circuit, who signed her to the label. Two international albums followed: Ko Sira and Worotan, and extensive touring around the world, winning her a reputation as one of Africa’s most original and striking female singers, faithful to her tradition but with a modern outlook.

    Six feet tall, beautiful, gutsy, stylish, playful on stage, charismatic, compassionate, soulful, with a smile that lights up your heart, and a soaring, piercing voice, Sangare has become an icon in Mali and around the world.

    For the past five years since the making of Worotan, Sangare has concentrated on spending more time with her family, building a hotel in Bamako (Hotel Wasulu), performing concerts throughout Africa, and producing music for her home market, with a number of best selling cassettes that continue to explore Mali’s diverse traditions, especially her own wassoulou. As Sangare says: “Why bother to play other people’s music, when our own is so rich?”

on May 29, 2008 - 7:06pm

Sangare kono—Sangare the Songbird. This is how Oumou Sangare, Mali’s great diva, champion of women’s rights, and one of the world’s most astounding female voices, describes herself when she sings her powerful songs that strike deep in the heart.
In Mali, to call oneself a “songbird” is a special privilege of musicians who come from the southern region known as Wasulu*. A songbird (kono) uses music to challenge and comment on life as it really is. And no one does this quite like Sangare the Songbird.

Oumou Sangare draws deep from the wealth of musical traditions of southern Mali. She comments on all aspects of life in her country, especially the problems that women face on a daily basis because of polygamy, but also on the sensuality of young love, on the pain of exile, on the need to cultivate the land, and on the frailty of human life.

Some of her songs use metaphor and irony; others are more direct. They are spirited expressions of her own philosophy and wisdom, born from her experience growing up in a poor family in Bamako and being catapulted to stardom at only the age of 21. And her idiom is the hauntingly beautiful homegrown music that has become her trademark: wassoulou.

Since its independence in 1960, Mali has been at the forefront of Africa’s most dynamic musical trends. Mali’s dance bands led the way with their blend of local griot songs mixed with Cuban, Congolese, and other international styles. But in the late 1980s a new music came along to challenge these styles and this was wassoulou.

Wassoulou music is based on the fabulous song and dance traditions of Wasulu, a remote and densely wooded region in southern Mali. In the 1950s, in the villages, the youth created this style out of the songs of the ancient hunters’ societies and made it their own. At first, the elders opposed it furiously as “bordello” music, comparing the main instrument, the six-string harp, to a bed bug because of its nervous rhythms that made young people dance frenetically as if bitten.

By the late 1970s wassoulou had begun to emerge as a new popular style in Bamako among migrant communities from the region. It received the stamp of approval when the government-sponsored Ensemble National Instrumental recruited two singers from the region, Coumba Sidibe and Sali Sidibe, into the group. Wassoulou was very different from the prevailing griot-based music of the dance bands. It had strong, hypnotic dance rhythms and the lyrics talked about general aspects of life in contemporary Mali. But Sangare the Songbird took all this much further than anyone else when she broke onto the scene in 1990 with her debut album, Moussolou (Women).

Not only was there a new bold rhythm and musical color that took dance floors by storm on this album, but the record launched the voice of a gifted young woman with immense charisma. And in her music she had a personal mission—to improve the subservient position of women in Mali. Realizing that she could not change the mind-set of the elders, Sangare addressed Mali’s unmarried youth. In a country where traditionally the young have no say, her songs were radical, passionate, and electrifying.

Born and raised in Bamako, Sangare had a natural gift for singing. Her musical inspiration was her mother, a singer from Wasulu who was steeped in the age-old regional styles such as the profound and sacred hunters’ music, and the frenetic djembe rhythms of acrobatic masquerades such as the sigi (buffalo) and the sogoninkun (little antelope’s head).

But when Sangare was only two years old, her father took a second wife and emigrated to Côte d’Ivoire, abandoning Sangare’s mother, who was pregnant at the time, and their three small children. Sangare’s earliest memories are of her mother weeping. The struggle to keep the family afloat was the backdrop to her childhood. As a singer, her mother’s main source of income was the sumu (wedding and baptism celebrations organised by women that take place in the courtyards and streets), but she was often too exhausted or depressed to accept engagements. Sangare accompanied her mother to the sumus from the age of five, and very soon was in demand in her own right. She thrilled in the atmosphere of these parties (as she puts it, “singing in the streets”), fired in equal measure by her passion for wassoulou music and by her desire to help her mother out by earning a little extra cash. Sangare soon became the family breadwinner.

Heard at one of these parties, she was recruited at age sixteen to join a short-lived but important group called Djoliba Percussions with whom she toured Europe in her first trip out of Mali. Following her acclaim as that band’s lead soloist, she decided to form her own group and for two years rehearsed under the tutelage of bass player and arranger Amadou Ba Guindo (leader of Mali’s legendary dance band National Badema).

In 1989, after some persuasion, and wary of the pitfalls that could await her if the album was not successful, she recorded her first album Moussolou. She was 21 years old. It was recorded in Abidjan and released on January 4, 1990, and it took West Africa by storm.

Her songs talked openly about subjects that had never before been expressed in public in this fundamentally conservative society, such as female sensuality, in her stunning hit song “Diaraby Nene” (the shivers of love). All the more remarkable because of her chosen idiom—that of hunters’ music.

For hundreds of years, until the beginning of the 20th century with French colonial rule, it was Mali’s hunters who were the protectors of the villages, the providers of food, and the healers. Still today they occupy a special place deep in the Malian psyche. They spend long periods in the bush and they know the healing properties of plants and trees. They are healers and philosophers. Their music, played on a special six-string harp, is believed to have magic powers that can protect hunters and tame even the most dangerous of animals.

Sangare’s vision from the outset was to bring the power and charm of this music into her own songs. The kamalengon i—a youth version of the hunter’s harp—is the instrument that she chose as the key sound in her group. Its nervous jittery rhythms and groove, underpinned by the compulsive iron scraper of the hunters - resonate with all kinds of popular styles, such as funk, rhythm and blues, and afrobeat. In addition, she used a violin, emulating the mournful sound of the one-string fiddle of Wasulu. But most important of all, her songs talked from the perspective of a young unmarried woman, in ways that no other Malian artist had ever dared to do before.

The album Moussolou was an unprecedented success throughout West Africa and catapulted Sangare to stardom. It also attracted the attention of Nick Gold of World Circuit, who signed her to the label. Two international albums followed: Ko Sira and Worotan, and extensive touring around the world, winning her a reputation as one of Africa’s most original and striking female singers, faithful to her tradition but with a modern outlook.

Six feet tall, beautiful, gutsy, stylish, playful on stage, charismatic, compassionate, soulful, with a smile that lights up your heart, and a soaring, piercing voice, Sangare has become an icon in Mali and around the world.

For the past five years since the making of Worotan, Sangare has concentrated on spending more time with her family, building a hotel in Bamako (Hotel Wasulu), performing concerts throughout Africa, and producing music for her home market, with a number of best selling cassettes that continue to explore Mali’s diverse traditions, especially her own wassoulou. As Sangare says: “Why bother to play other people’s music, when our own is so rich?”

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