Over the last three or so decades, Oumou Sangaré’s name has become synonymous in the global consciousness with movements that go far beyond music. The “Songbird of Wassoulou” has spent her career drawing on the Malian region’s long-standing musical traditions in crafting her messages of social critique and especially women’s empowerment, which she perpetuates further as a businesswoman and United Nations ambassador. There seems no end to the doors Sangaré’s music can open–and no end to the music itself.
The new album Timbuktu is yet another brilliant addition to Sangaré’s repertoire. On it, she interweaves familiar sounds from her long and distinguished body of work with fresh musical ideas. Lifelong friend and collaborator Mamadou Sidibé’s ngoni, the ever-present lute accompanying Sangaré’s voice, is as lyrical as ever, its lilting patterns providing a dynamic backdrop for Sangaré’s lithe, golden voice. The distinct wailing of the dobro and slide guitar is new to her work, instruments brought into play by none other than Delgrès frontman and Timbuktu co-producer Pascal Danaë.
Danaë gets the album’s first notes, opening “Wassulu Don” alongside handclaps that set a spirited stage for Sidibé and Sangaré herself. The combination makes it abundantly clear that yes, this is the Oumou Sangaré we love–and no, she’s not about to rest on her laurels.
And so it goes, Sangaré delivering stunning new music written largely within the isolation of 2020’s social distancing, a period in which Sangaré was clearly able to create her own silver lining. She sings of historical and modern Malian achievements with a voice critical of contemporary strife in tracks like “Wassulu Don”, thoughtful “Timbuktu”, and lively “Kêlê Magni”, on which Sidibé’s ngoni gallops in lockstep with Balla Kouyaté’s restless balafon.
Sangaré implores women to support themselves and each other in the sprightly and symphonic “Sira”, blissfully bittersweet “Degui N’Kelena”, and heartfelt “Demissimw”. “Kanou” is an unabashed love song, its sentimentality tempered by distant dobro twangs. Rollicking “Sarama” and gentle “Dily Oumou” are rejoinders to jealous critics. The album ends with the majestic “Sabou Dogoné”, an ancestral song of Wassoulou, which Sangaré imbues with new solemnity.
It’s hard to think of an album on which Oumou Sangaré has not been in fine form, but Timbuktu still stands out. For as much as the label “Malian blues” is thrown around in talking about everything from Tinariwen to Touré, Timbuktu truly delivers on such a phrase. The joining of Sangaré’s and Sidibé’s work with Danaë’s is a total transatlantic success no matter what mood the ensemble is aiming to capture. Sangaré is as direct with her messaging as she has ever been. Her masterful delivery continues to sound almost effortless, that instantly recognizable velvet voice as soothing today as it was at the advent of her international career.
On Timbuktu, Oumou Sangaré continues to prove how much work she puts in to maintain her reputation as a musical force and yet how open she is to worthwhile sonic change. There’s not a sound or note wasted.