Vocalist Oumou Sangare has been a major star since 1989 in Mali, a country that many
Sangare performs Wassoulou music that originates from the southwestern region of Mali. Wassoulou was traditionally performed with percussion such as the djembe, the soku-a horse-hair fiddle-and the kamalengoni, a six-stringed lyre. Working with her producer, the late Ahmadou Ba Guindo, Sangare developed a modernized Wassoulou, adding guitar and bass and replacing the soku with a modern violin, for her first release, Moussoulou. Ko Sira employs the same instrumentation, and the result is a crystalline musical sound, mostly acoustic, that flows like honey yet projects an honest intensity. The percussion is subtle and quiet, but the sound often funky, particularly on “Kayini Wura” and “Dugu Kamelemba.” The instrumentalists-Brehima Diakite on kamalengoni, Boubacar Diallo on guitar, and Aliou Traore on violin-are all first-rate.
It is Sangare’s voice, however, that is most impressive. It is a sweet, strong alto, capable of expressing both seductive love and feminine toughness. Her songs deal with a mix of traditional subjects—love, death, the out-migration of youth, the spirits who guard the villages. But Sangare is most well known in Mali for her numbers that deal with the problems that afflict Malian women: the inequities of polygyny, arranged marriages, and deceptive men. It would be a mistake, though, to represent Sangare as a kind of radical feminist. Some reviewers and promoters have even dubbed Sangare the “Madonna of Mali”, but she is no libertine. Her attacks on male excesses are balanced by an assertion of the need to uphold tradition. On the song, “Sigi Kuruni”, she urges the young bride to respect her husband and her mother-in-law, for the sake of a successful marriage. Just as Sangare’s band produces a modernized-traditional sound rather than the full-scale embrace of electronic percussion and keyboards that one hears in so much contemporary African pop, so too her lyrics articulate an updated traditionalism. A practicing Muslim who fasts during Ramadan, Sangare is at the same time an assertive woman who wants to rid her country of its oppressive practices with regard to women and to promote female equality within the tradition.
Ko Sira fully deserves the accolades it has received since its release. Sangare’s most recent album, Worotan, in 1996, was somewhat more experimental, due to the participation of James Brown’s former hornman Pee Wee Ellis and British-Asian guitarist Nitin Sawhney. One can only be grateful that Ko Sira is available once again, but must also ask-when will we be treated to a new release from this brilliant artist?