When a musician has been in the business of public performance long enough, she begins to accumulate clusters of shorthand description that follow her around from one article or review to another. So it is that among international African musicians, Amadou and Mariam have become the blind married ones, Salif Keita is the albino one, the members of Tinariwen are the rebel ones who live in a desert, and Oumou Sangaré seems to have become the one who talks about female genital mutilation. It’s not as if she does this all the time, or even most of the time, but to have done it at all was evidently enough. She might be the feminist one if her fellow Malian Rokia Traoré weren’t around being womanly and empowered as well. The public expression of Sangare’s feminism is framed by the local female traditions she borrows from, while Traoré, whose diplomat father took the family with him through different countries when he travelled, comes at it from a more Western angle. The two of them are sometimes mentioned in the same breath, but the same breath will usually point out, as Songlines did when it published an article about the pair a few years ago, that they don’t really sound alike.
Traoré in the past has often aimed for acoustic simplicity — the sound of one woman with a guitar. Sangaré likes her songs larger, noisier, and layered, and this album is all about layers: string upon string upon voice upon chorus of voices upon vamping keyboard upon ritti upon balafon upon saxophone upon local Wassoulou music upon jazz, upon this upon that. Trying to find a way to sum up Seya I kept thinking of chocolate cake words: big, fat, rich, chunky. Then I tried to stretch the comparison between Sangaré’s music and a chocolate cake further and discovered that it didn’t fly. This music leaves you electrified — not filled up and weighed down but lightened, ears elated, brain awake, revitalised rather than satisfied. It’s an improvement over her previous albums, which sometimes relied on the strength of her voice without making the other elements of each song pull their weight. Seya is what Kandia Kouyaté’s Kita Kan might have been. Kouyaté’s people tried to marry Western instruments to her West African roots as well, but there the mixture seemed hesitant, not fully realised. It wasn’t until they trimmed away the foreign influences in Biriko that she had an international release worthy of her. A simpler frame was what she needed. Sangaré goes in the opposite direction, making her surroundings larger and smarter, roaring along on a plumply grooving cushion of instruments and call-and-response singing.
When the music moves slowly this aural thickness makes it grand, and when it moves quickly the thickness makes it exciting — the sound of multiple things meeting flawlessly at speed. Seya is a compendium of good points. One of them is the many inspired pairings of different instruments: the harp and the buzz in “Senkele Te Sira”, the balafon and ritti in “Djigiu”. The attention to depth and clarity in the sound quality is, as is usual in the case of World Circuit, the album’s original British label, terrific. Nick Gold’s regard for the musicians shines through as it did in the Buena Vista Social Club recordings and Ali Farka Touré’s final album. His production is the icing on the cake. Sangaré has surpassed herself.