As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
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From the heart of the African continent, Mali’s regal six-foot proto-feminist Oumou Sangare unabashedly propels the past into the future by performing authentic music from her Peul/Wassoulou heritage. The strategy? Sangare spares no concert from lyrics that pour a subversive pedagogy into the unworldly ears of young women. Ever since her debut recording, Moussolou —“Women” (World Circuit/Rounder Records), Sangare has been singing songs of revolt against the abuses euphemistically referred to as customs: arranged marriages (the translation of Ko Sira , Sangare’s second CD), servitude as a wife, womanizing, polygamy, and the sale of brides for “ten kola nuts,” known as Worotan , the title of her new release.
In concert, against the backdrop of a band wearing ochre bogolan (mud dyed) garments, Sangare is festooned in handcrafted clay, ebony and beaded necklaces. She wears yards of shimmering damasks over pants scalloped and embroidered at the hem. Ululations trilling, the vocalist issues advisories about the dangers of anger, macho big shots, the suffering of the poor, and the irresponsibility of abandoning the land—the labor it demands—or even one’s country. In full throated blues style, Sangare improvises transitions between songs. They come out as greetings to people she recognizes, or Sangare may test her audience’s linguistic facility by moving from French to English to Bambara or her own Wassoulou creole. With no sign of sentimentality, she resumes singing about fatherless children or a lone bird in a diminishing forest. Majestically graceful, with her arms outstretched Moses-style, she signals her band into a jam of rhythms. Then with her backup singers, she swoops into a dance groove. Talk about synthesis of traditions, art and politics! Her first recording was exactly the music you would have heard 50 years ago in the forests—music performed by hunters to charm the wild animals, but with updated lyrics.
On the telephone from her home in Bamako, Oumou Sangare transmits confidence, but also inextricable from the integrity of her principles, a youthful modesty. Once while she was attending someone in her household, Massambou Wele Diallo, arranger and percussionist, picked up the phone to speak of her courage: “In the beginning she was not always well received because for men, she was becoming an annoying woman. She wants to change habits and customs. But little by little, we realized that she was telling the truth. Oumou gave herself the mission to create a new society, to make women and men understand that in a relationship there should always be equality. The woman cannot anymore be the object and the slave of men. And it’s with the harmony from love that we can create a good family life. This message is addressed to women as well as to men, because before, it was the men who decided everything in the family. The man has the right to marry as many wives as he wants—up to four—but, in general, it’s to use the woman for field work. Oumou wants monogamous marriages; that men and women share the same rights as well as responsibilities in raising and educating children. Oumou wants to create a big change.”
(By, telephone between New York and Bamako, Mali)
Zoë Anglesey Three years after your legendary Moussolou appeared in 1990, your second album, Ko Sira, attracted an even larger audience internationally. The first song “Kayini Wura” (Evening Greeting) is translated in the liner notes, please explain the purpose of this song.
Oumou Sangare It’s a salutation. Here in Africa, often before starting a performance we greet the major personalities in attendance. It’s an introduction to the show, but it’s directed toward the elders. When you pay respect in a salutation, that is the beginning of the beginning.
ZA In the song “Sigi Kuruni” (Advice to the Bride) you tell the bride to respect the husband, mother-in-law, and the husband’s brother, even if he “beats you.” Have you had a response to this song from African women who now do not accept this abuse and demand respect for themselves?
OS In fact, I sing those lyrics to “Advice to the Bride” with total irony. I put myself in the role of a mother giving advice to a daughter.
Sophie Darve-Johnson You use a voice other than your own to recreate the woman’s experience?
OS Yes, the mother’s voice says you have to be submissive, that the man has to have all the power at the head of the household. It’s going to be me who says it’s not true.
SDJ Can’t that be said directly?
OS No. I can only speak of this in an ironic way. You can’t be so direct. A good number of my audience comes from the new generation of women who don’t accept submission. There are many women in Black Africa who are currently fighting for their rights and seeking equality between the woman and the man. We respect marriage, but we want equality in the family.
ZA In “Mani Djindala” (The Young Adventurer), are you appealing to young people to return to Africa? We have an expression, “the brain drain,” to describe students who go abroad for training and never return home with their expertise.
OS I speak to young people about returning to Africa often. Africa is a beautiful place, but how can we assist this beautiful continent to move forward? It takes work! If all the people leave, go to the U.S. or to France because those countries are rich, who’s going to work here to make Black Africa richer? Africa will never develop this way. I really want my brothers and sisters to think about returning. No one’s against tourism, but I’m against staying there. Abandoning parents, their families—this I’m against. We need them to work here at home, together. In unity we have strength.
ZA What impact has your music had?
OS I sing about the injustices in society, what’s unfair or does harm. I sing about the things that I don’t like, but the theme of “the woman,” that is the most important focus for me. The problems women suffer, that’s what I want to change.
ZA Do you think about warning women regarding AIDS and how it’s contracted?
OS A lot, because women really listen to me. I often suggest that we—my cousin Alima [Touré] and my niece Nabintou [Diakite] who are my backup singers—have meetings with women to confer with each other about the problems of AIDS. Perhaps 60 percent of women are illiterate here—we must share information about the disease.
ZA Often, musicians in the U.S. tend to accentuate one aspect of their music to make it unique. What do you want from a song?
OS I really want my songs to carry a message. Here, at home in Africa, we don’t sing whatever or however. There are many artists here, but for an artist to be loved—the arts are deeply admired in Africa—the artist has to be a good educator. What the artist says and does, that’s what people pay attention to. People respect an artist who serves as an example. My role as an artist is to educate women about their rights.
ZA For you, where did the idea of being an artist come from?
OS I was born into a family of artists. My mother is a wonderful singer, she’s been singing all her life.
ZA Did you start singing when you were a child?
OS I sang as a toddler. There were little singing contests in kindergarten, and at the age of five, I sang in front of three thousand people. That’s when I started.
OS It was in the Omni Sports Stadium of Bamako. I was so tiny they put me on a table so everyone could see me. It was unforgettable.
ZA In the song “Dugu Kamelenba” (The Womanizer) you sing, “I have been seduced, deceived, and abandoned.” You warn women to be wary of sweet talk since men might have selfish motives. Do women take heed hearing this song and do the men get angry?
OS “The womanizer” … you understand what I’m talking about. However, when I sing I’ve been seduced, in fact, it’s not me. These songs are very often poems, and it’s my voice in the poem. I state such things as if I’m giving advice to myself and then I put it into a song for others. I bring myself into it as an example to those who are listening to me.
SDJ You’re taking on a persona?
OS Yes, I put myself in another woman’s skin who’s been deceived by a man. I voice the feelings that come from her.
ZA Does this song provoke special responses from women in your audience?
OS Many women come to me and say, “I have a problem.” I receive so many letters, not only from Mali, but also Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, South Africa …
SDJ And the language you speak, it’s understood in other countries?
OS No. The lyrics are translated on the cassettes and CDs. People write to me from everywhere in Africa. At the minimum, I receive a hundred letters weekly coming from the four directions of Africa.
ZA And what about the men, are they angry at you because of these lyrics?
OS Well, maybe they’re not angry, but we’re not very good friends …
ZA Your song “Bi Furu” (Modern Marriage) conveys the idea that parents sometimes sell their daughters to the highest bidder, even for ten kola nuts. Though this kind of transaction does not occur in U.S. society, many times we observe people who marry for money. Is the message of “Bi Furu” to honor the integrity of a relationship rather than the illusory security brought by money?
OS That’s it, because here its so exaggerated. To get married you have to save a huge amount of money, and if you never get enough, you become afraid of going your whole life without ever getting married. This is something very serious! In Mali, we are really poor, we have to consider love, but even if two people love each other, the parents come in the middle and ask for money. That’s how a marriage goes rotten. I can’t say don’t get married to somebody rich, but marry because you want to make a future together. If marriage doesn’t have a future, it will end up badly.
ZA What gave you the idea or the courage to write lyrics that frankly speak about issues important to women, even when tradition forbids this?
OS I was born into a polygamic family. My father had two wives. My mother was the first, she suffered so much. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve promised myself that one day when I have the kilos—when I can toss my weight around—I will scream about this problem to the whole world.
SDJ Your mother must really be proud of you.
OS She’s very proud. Being a woman who was subjected by and suffered from polygamy, she comes to me with her ideas from injustices she’s endured. If I start to compose music, she comes around, and I include her ideas in my songs. She still cries when she sings to me.
ZA Are there people who have threatened you because you sing about these realities?
OS Yes, in the beginning I really had problems with men. In Mali now, I’d say at least 80 percent of the young men are educated. Currently, all children go to school, which is an advantage compared to the time when children didn’t go to school. At that time many of us didn’t know our rights, whether man or woman—how can you without studying? So now everybody knows their rights, especially the young people. I sense that the young people and all the women are on my side, and that’s what encourages me in my struggle. Even in the case when my lyrics are not loved, the elders adore my voice. Some of them break down and cry when I sing. It’s too beautiful. I don’t want to even say anything about it. It’s better to witness this than to talk about it.
SDJ Do you consider yourself a griotte?
OS I am not a griotte. Griots have nothing. They come to your home and ask for money before they sing. Me, I am Peul.
SDJ What does it mean to be Peul in Mali?
OS The Peuls are just about everywhere in Africa. It’s a group of shepherds who follow the cattle from land to land. Since ancient times, our great great great grandparents, the Peul people, have traversed all of Africa, from Chad, Cameroon, Ethiopia, to South Africa, Senegal, Guinea—we are everywhere, and we speak the Peul language.
SDJ But don’t you speak Bambara?
OS When our parents settled is Wassoulou, close to where they speak Malinke, we lost our native Peul language. They wanted to speak Malinke. Now, the language of Wassoulou is a mix of both—Bambara and Wassoulounké. It’s in this language that I sing.
SDJ Are you from a nomadic family?
OS No, not nomadic, noble. Salif Keita is also a noble. His natural gift is singing, he has a voice that God gave him. It’s not mandatory that we nobles sing.
ZA Do you think of yourself as a leader or freedom fighter for women?
OS (laughter) I was the first one who started to speak out about correcting the inequalities and injustice that women still endure in Mali.
ZA Of genital cutting and sewing, is this a concern of yours as well?
OS Yes, it interests me a lot. It’s more of a religions question, it’s rarely done here. Since the time of Mansa Musa when Islam was introduced into Mali, women have struggled against this scourge. It’s not very prevalent now.
ZA What do you say to men, or anyone, who condemns your lyrics?
OS The men who say they are polygamists with two or three women, their ideas and mine are very different. They don’t want to hear the truth.
SDJ How do you explain your success with American and European audiences who don’t understand lyrics?
OS Music is universal. Here in Africa we dance to rap, to the blues … we love reggae music although we don’t understand the lyrics. So African music can also be loved even if you don’t understand the lyrics, because rhythm doesn’t need language. Rhythm is a language—it is French, German, Malian—it is understood everywhere. I can say the reason for my success is because I symbolize Black Africa. I show my country as it is. When you see Oumou perform, it’s really Africa on Stage—the garments, the instruments, the dance is all African. When we talk about Africa, people may think about misery, but there’s not just misery in Africa. That’s not the only association to make. Our music is essential to the positive life here in Africa.
SDJ On Worotan, you have Pee Wee Ellis on saxophone, Winston Rollins on trombone, and Graeme Hamilton on trumpet. Who decided to include these guys?
OS Nick Gold, the producer proposed this to me. Here at home we have horn sections, but with indigenous wind instruments like the flute and trumpets made from wood that give nearly the same sound as the western trumpet.
SDJ Why did you use a horn section that was not African?
OS It was a way to get the attention of a European public. I also took into consideration that to some degree, American music comes from us. The source, the rhythms, the melody—all that comes from Africa. It’s easy to communicate, to blend, and to mix with other sounds. Our music is very organic and natural as are the rhythms. It seemed as though we’d been working a hundred years with these guys because it was so easy.
SDJ Do you mean all the funk music, like everything James Brown does, is directly linked to Africa?
OS Yeah. Really. It’s linked to Africa.
ZA Do you realize that U.S. and European audiences greatly appreciate the authenticity of your music and probably don’t care about the presence of a saxophone or trumpet?
OS Each person has their own way of understanding music. I used the band because I loved them. I like their sound, the resemblance of the horn section compared to the traditional wind instruments. When I listen to Worotan, I don’t hear a western sound. My first concern is to preserve traditional music.
SDJ You told us that you don’t use the kora because it’s not from your area, yet you also say you don’t have a problem using western saxophones. Why?
OS The difference is that the kora has its own particular tonality. For instance, the kora can’t attune itself to the pentatonic scale. The horns that we used can definitely play the pentatonic scale. There’s not this problem of adaptability. Even if it were done, our style doesn’t fit the genre of music that’s associated with the kora. We have two very different cultures—the scales from the north and the ones we use down here. The horns of Pee Wee Ellis adapted well to our traditional music.
ZA Isn’t the crossover based on this premise—adaptability?
OS No, no. I personally did not use the horn section for commercial purposes. I used them because I really want to show that music has no frontier, no borders. That’s what I want to demonstrate to people abroad. When they begin to pick up a kamalengoni [A six stringed instrument from Mali and Guinea for young players. The ngoni is a three-to-five stringed guitar/lute, a precursor to the banjo.] to play rap music, it’s going to sound good, it’s going to be feasible. That’s what I want to show.
ZA Who are the singers or musicians who influenced you?
OS There were some older singers here in Mali like Kagb-Sidib—her cassettes are in the market. I adore Miriam Makeba, the mama of Africa. I really admire what Miriam Makeba used to do for South Africa. I respect her courage. She was very strong. In 1986 I saw her perform in France; it was my first time in Europe. I was in the Djoliba Percussion, an instrumental band of performers.
SDJ Are there other artists whom you love, who have influenced you?
OS I love art in general. I love rap because of its strong message. I really love Bob Marley. When I was a little girl, I was into James Brown.
ZA May I ask you questions about your private life? For example, what do you remember from childhood or adolescence?
OS I don’t have anything to say about my growing up except what I saw happening to my mother. I always suffered being as close to her as I was. I’m the first daughter, the oldest. My father made my mother suffer terribly because of his co-spouse. If he loved me, I could not see it. I only saw my mother’s side; I was always worrying about her.
SDJ Was your father a musician as well?
OS No, only my mother.
SDJ Does she sing at home or in public?
OS My mother sings for ceremonies, tomorrow she will sing for a baptism.
SDJ Do you ever go along to sing as well at these ceremonies?
OS No. I don’t sing for baptisms. I invite my mother to my house to sing. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to go to baptisms because they’re for children and I’m a little too well known for that.
ZA Do you have children?
OS I have one child, a boy who will be two years old in November.
ZA Is it difficult for you to tour with a young child and family at home?
OS No. It’s not difficult because I’ve being doing this since I was young. I only know this work. It’s true, it’s a little more difficult with a child, I worry about him. Yet, since the baby was a month old, I’ve been performing on tour. If I really want to see my child, he comes with me. My husband is an exemplary husband so he takes a good deal of pride in taking care of our son.
ZA If you were not touring internationally, what would be your life as a woman?
OS Aye, aye, aye. Well, I’d be a good housewife, a woman who takes care of her family … but I’d be a revolutionary housewife. I would never accept my husband treating me as a slave in the family.
ZA What would you like to do that you haven’t done?
OS I would definitely like to work in movies. Acting would be another way to convey the message.
SDJ Do you already have a project that you’re working on?
OS I have a little project with a Belgian director, but I’m still looking for other things. We’re going to shoot a film in Burkina Faso in 1997, a script about colonization.
SDJ Do you write scripts, or do you have some ideas that you want to write about?
OS I have plenty of ideas. I’m actually writing scripts now. The next step will be to look for some financial support.
ZA Will you begin to produce your own recordings?
OS My husband wants to open a studio here in Mali to record artists from all of Africa. He expects to find a lot of new talent. We think we’ll start next year.
SDJ Do you enjoy being on stage?
OS Oh yes. I love to be on stage. I love the energy. I like to decorate the stage with traditional things that Europeans aren’t familiar with, to bring a little bit of our civilization to the stage by singing, dancing, and a few art objects. Together they evoke an ambiance. Of course, it’s true that Africa is poor, but there’s abundant expression for the joy of life. There’s often a sense of partying, both in the sense of having fun, but also political partying. We express political consciousness, humanity, and solidarity. When you see an African artist on stage, all this happens naturally. The ambiance, then, is not just bringing the objects or beautiful fabrics to the stage, but something else, it’s organic.
SDJ Do you ever wear western clothing on stage?
OS Yes, I do. In the same way I mix instruments, I want my clothing to reflect the western and the traditional influences, so I wear traditional as well as western clothing on stage.
SDJ So far, what has been your experience with African American musicians, or people in general?
OS When I performed last year at Summer Stage (in Manhattan’s Central Park), although I didn’t meet very many African Americans, I really appreciated the fact that so many showed such a great deal of interest in contemporary African culture. Even in the way they dressed, it’s typically African. I also met African Americans who play traditional instruments from Africa. I was so surprised to find this.
SDJ And do they sound as good as Africans when they play?
OS No. How can it be compared to people who are born into the culture? They can adapt this style though. It’s like us Africans who play guitars. At home there are some great guitarists, but it’s not the same.
Zoë Anglesey reviews books and jazz. An advocate of multilingual texts, she edited Stone on Stone (Open Hand Books), a collection of US women’s poetry translated into Spanish.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.