Challenge to Mali's males

December 11, 1996

Oumou Sangaré
World Circuit through Festival
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

The West African country of Mali has become something of a music hot spot in recent years. Artists such as Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita and Mory Kanté have placed Mali's traditional and pop music on the map.

Many believe the roots of African-American music, which has revolutionised popular music in the latter part of this century, lie in West Africa. This may explain the growing popularity of modern Malian music. The listener is immediately struck by its resemblance to African-American blues and funk.

So far, the Malian performers who have made it onto the world stage have been men. But back in Mali, it is the women who are the superstars. From the times of the great Manding civilisation in western Mali, which flourished between the 13th and 15th centuries, until today, the jalimusolo — women musicians — have been the backbone of Malian music. If there is any justice in the music world, Oumou Sangaré will be the first Malian woman to challenge male Mali's international dominance.

Sangaré's music is both traditional and funky. It draws the best from local influences and the wider African diaspora to create a sound known as Wassoulou, which is also the name of the southern region of Mali which Sangaré calls home. Her voice soars to great heights and reverberates to wonderful depths. The djembe drum sets up a driving beat, and a searing horn section sets the disc alight.

Echoing a statement by compatriot Ali Farka Touré, Sangaré makes no excuses about her funked-up sound: "When we first heard [African-American] funk in Mali, it was like a cousin to Wassoulou ... we saw our own folklore in James Brown". To underscore the H... we saw our own folklore in James Brown." To underscore the point that Malian and African-American music are kissin' cousins, Sangaré is joined by James Brown's long-time horn-section arranger and grandfather of funk-sax, Pee Wee Ellis.

The theme of Worotan, like her earlier albums, is rights for women in Africa, where tradition still rules supreme. Tracks tackle sticky topics like a woman's right to choose marriage as opposed to arranged marriage and polygamy, and opposition to bride price. Her feminist stance has earned her the ire of the Malian clergy and others in authority. "African women can tend to be a little shy in enforcing their rights", Sangaré told the British music mag Straight No Chaser. "I felt they needed someone to represent them, so I assumed this role."

It seems many women accepted the offer. When Sangaré's cassette Moussoulou (Women) was released in 1990, it sold more than 200,000 copies, making her the biggest selling artist in West Africa.

1993's Ko-Sira (Marriage Today) called for freedom of choice for women in relationships.

Worotan means "10 kola nuts" and refers to the bride price. The song criticises how society defines a "good wife" as being submissive. "Marriage is a test of endurance", Sangaré warns her young fans, "because the bride price of a mere 10 kola nuts turns the bride into a slave". "Denw" (Children) attacks the stigma in Malian society against women who choose not to, or cannot, have children. "Tièbaw" (Big Men) is about the injustices of polygamy.

Ask Santa for this one!