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Oumou Sangaré: Flag bearer of traditional Wassoulou rhythms

Mali is rich in ethnic diversity and storied history. Popular music in this West African country is a beautiful rainbow charged with great emotion, with each ethnic group represented by its own musical repertoire. When I traveled to Mali in the early 2000s, I observed that the Malian people confront each other through music. They cultivate their differences through it; they use music to reconcile and unite. Popular musicians sing about strong empires and the glorious past and bravour of the men and women who once ruled them. Modern musicians and orchestras evoke these echoes from the past to sing about life, love, and hope. The expression "music softens morals" is much of a Malian thing.

One Malian artist who leads the way in the international music scene is Oumou Sangaré, known as the "Songbird of Wassoulou." Since the release of her first album, “Moussolou,” in 1989, the life of the Malian singer has known no respite. Through the years, she has released some of the most outstanding recordings of contemporary African music, including “Ko Sira” in 1993, “Worotan” in 1996, and “Seya,” which was nominated in the Best World Music Album category at the Grammy Awards in 2009.

Her storied music career has since crossed the barriers that separate musical genres and continents. She has collaborated with a plethora of artists, including Alicia Keys for a television duet, and had one of her most famous creations, “Diaraby Néné,” sampled by Beyonce in her song “Mood 4 Eva.”

Overnight, she became the muse of a feminist cause which at the time didn't have a real foundation in her country. But in all her albums, she has written lyrics that denounce the abuse of the patriarchal tradition, which authorizes polygamy, forced marriage, and excision. She stands up vigorously against these abuses. Her career and her recordings are thus marked like a red-hot iron by a double dimension: being a woman and having a social origin that has made her singularly sensitive to all forms of injustice.

The youngest daughter of a family belonging to the Wassoulou Fulani ethnic group, Sangaré was raised by her mother, Aminata Diakité, who was also a renowned singer. Sangaré knew very little about her father, who left home to take a second wife when she was two years old. Her mother had to become a trader to support her four children and Sangaré left school at an early age to sing in the streets in order to help her family.

Today her success is planetary. Her recent album “Timbuktu,” which was conceived and recorded during the COVID quarantine while she was in Baltimore, Maryland, continues her feminist themes and touches on the political turmoil back home in Mali. With this album, her artistry remains grounded in traditional dance and rhythms of the Wassoulou people, combining Malian traditional percussion, guitar, and native language vocals with elements of blues, folk, and rock. For many critics, “Timbuktu” is an ambitious and accomplished work, worthy of consecrating this great lady of African music into legendary status.

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Emmanuel Nado is at the forefront of promoting African music and culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is from Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa, a country which for many years has been the crossroad of African popular music. As a journalist, promoter and radio producer, Nado is an active force in the African music scene in the U.S. In the early '90s, his published articles on African music and the artists were eye openers to many Bay Area African music aficionados.