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Joseph Burnett

On the cover of her latest album, legendary Malian Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré looks strikingly like the bejewelled woman in Abderrahmane Sissako’s wonderful 2014 film Timbuktu, who marches unafraid through the historic city even as jihadist forces impose brutal measures that curb the freedoms of the inhabitants, especially women. Coincidentally, that character was played by another famed Malian singer, Fatoumata Diawara. Whether the album art was a deliberate reference or not, it’s a reminder of the socio-political nature of Sangaré’s art, as she uses a popular form of song to challenge patriarchal norms.

I obviously do not speak Wassoulou, so cannot be certain as to the messages contained within the nine songs that make up Mogoya, but there’s often a certain edge to Sangaré’s vocals that makes me believe that her contempt for practices like female genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages remains undimmed. Her voice is striking, a powerful soprano that projects itself forcefully over the massed ranks of guitar, keyboards, backing vocals and drums that swirl through each song. For Mogoya, Sangaré eschewed the “Western” (a silly term given she’s from West Africa) textures that are often imposed on artists from the developing world and returned to the source: all these songs are organic, earthy, sparse despite the many textures, and each hits home with potent i ...

On the cover of her latest album, legendary Malian Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré looks strikingly like the bejewelled woman in Abderrahmane Sissako’s wonderful 2014 film Timbuktu, who marches unafraid through the historic city even as jihadist forces impose brutal measures that curb the freedoms of the inhabitants, especially women. Coincidentally, that character was played by another famed Malian singer, Fatoumata Diawara. Whether the album art was a deliberate reference or not, it’s a reminder of the socio-political nature of Sangaré’s art, as she uses a popular form of song to challenge patriarchal norms.

I obviously do not speak Wassoulou, so cannot be certain as to the messages contained within the nine songs that make up Mogoya, but there’s often a certain edge to Sangaré’s vocals that makes me believe that her contempt for practices like female genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages remains undimmed. Her voice is striking, a powerful soprano that projects itself forcefully over the massed ranks of guitar, keyboards, backing vocals and drums that swirl through each song. For Mogoya, Sangaré eschewed the “Western” (a silly term given she’s from West Africa) textures that are often imposed on artists from the developing world and returned to the source: all these songs are organic, earthy, sparse despite the many textures, and each hits home with potent immediacy.

Much has been made about the presence of Nigerian drummer supreme Tony Allen on “Yere Faga,” and indeed his unmistakably taut rhythms help make the song one of the stand-outs on Mogoya, but just as worthy is a production that heightens Oumou Sangaré’s soaring vocal, supported as much by a loping bass line as it is by Allen’s metronomic poly-rhythms. The drums are actually ferociously good across all nine songs, a series of hypnotic shuffles and martial drives that form a rock-solid foundation for the other instruments. Along with Allen’s drums and the remarkable bass, a searing electric guitar solo seethes across the spectrum on “Yere Faga,” drawing a parallel with the Tuareg blues of neighboring Niger.

More traditional instruments of Wassoulou music, such as the kamalen n’goni harp and the djembe form the bedrock of later tracks such as “Fadjamou,” “Mali Niale” and “Kounkoun” and the beauty of Sangaré’s compositions is how balanced this mixture of traditional and modern can be. Never do the synthesizers or electric guitars impede on the bliss of hearing these old acoustic instruments, even when, for example, the former soar like a brief prog-rock sample, as on “Kamelemba.” The drums, whether deployed in dense poly-rhythms by Allen on “Yere Faga,” or subsumed into a torrent of various percussive devices as on “Djoukourou,” always provide infectious forward momentum, a relentless groove that is as powerful as any high life, funk or Afrobeat rhythm and only emphasized by Sangaré’s voice.

And there’s no denying that, for all the instrumental bliss mentioned above, this is Oumou Sangaré’s triumph. Her voice pierces, swoons, serenades and laments in turn, her pitch and timbre precise, her personality imposing. Backed by a chorus of backing singers clearly having the time of their lives and giving her further wings, Sangaré is poet and storyteller, moral guide and denouncer of injustice all wrapped up in one singular, beautiful voice.

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