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Oumou Sangaré

Mali |

Oumou Sangaré: Queen of African pop music from Mali Wassoulou

The queen of African music Oumou Sangaré today premieres the third track from her new album ‘Timbuktu’, due for release on 29th April via World Circuit Records. In the bittersweet ‘Sira’ (literally ‘the baobab’ in the Bambara language), Oumou sings about the offspring of well-heeled and erudite families who, despite all their advantages, lapse into delinquency and throw away a promising future. “Nature can betray you, and life can change at any time,” Oumou says. “A good person’s child may not resemble them.. life is not always logical! The baobab’s trunk is smooth, but its fruits are rough.”

Recorded in multiple locations (US, Mali and France) and co-produced by Pascal Danaë and Nicolas Quéré, ‘Timbuktu’ is the Malian singer’s first new material since 2017’s critically-acclaimed album ‘Mogoya’. Recent single ‘Wassulu Don’, a joyous fusion of Oumou’s distinctive Malian sound with elements of blues and rock, was premiered on International Women’s Day with a stunning video directed by Justyna Obasi and filmed in Ghana.

Sangaré is renowned worldwide for her vibrant and powerful music, which often features revolutionary messages about women’s rights, tradition and poverty. Since the release of her debut album ‘Moussoulou’ in 1989, there’s been no respite for the Malian singer. Notable waymarks on her rich and fruitful journey include some of the most definitive recordings in the history of contemporary African music: ‘Ko Sira’ in 1993, ‘Worotan’ in 1996 and ‘Seya’ in 2009, the latter nominated for a Grammy Award. Counting among her many notable fans Alicia Keys, Aya Nakamura and Beyoncé (who sampled the classic ‘Diaraby Nene’ for her 2019 Lion King release), Sangaré has long since broken through barriers separating continents and musical styles.

‘Timbuktu’ is the latest act in this unparalleled musical epic, consecrating an artist who rose from the poor neighbourhoods of Bamako to become a world-renowned musician and a vocal activist (for her tireless work on social progress and cultural development, she holds the prestigious titles of Goodwill Ambassador for the UN’s Food & Agriculture organisation, Commander of the National Order of Mali and Chevalier of Culture in France).

In March 2020, shortly after the International Wassoulou Festival (FIWA), an event Oumou launched in 2016 to promote her birth region in southern Mali, Sangaré went to the United States. She’d only planned to stay a few weeks but then lockdown came, first in New York, then in Baltimore, a place where she quickly felt at home. “Something in that city drew me in straightaway. I felt so good there that I bought a house!” Once settled into her new abode, she spent her days writing songs with the help of an old friend, Mamadou Sidibé, who has been Oumou Sangare’s kamele n’goni (traditional lute) player since the very beginning.

This period of enforced seclusion gave birth to ten of the eleven songs on ‘Timbuktu’. The album weaves intimate sonic connections between traditional West African instruments and those linked to the history of the blues, most notably the kamele n’goni and its distant heirs, the Dobro and slide guitar. “Since 1990, I’ve never had a chance to cut myself off from the world and devote myself exclusively to music,” she says. “I think you feel it in the music, but also in the lyrics which are fruit of all those moments when I was able to withdraw into myself and meditate.”

It’s true – never have Oumou Sangare’s lyrics achieved such a poetic quality, such depth. Never have we seen her so inspired to deliver her thoughts on the indecipherable mysteries of existence, the perilous situation that her country is going through right now or the general condition of African womanhood, all proof that despite becoming so powerful, she hasn’t renounced the belief and commitment of her youth. Many feelings and moods nourish this album, from the introspection of ‘Degui N’Kelena’ to the amorous languor of ‘Kanou’, the compassion of ‘Demissimw’, the exasperation of ‘Kêlê Magni’ or the pride of ‘Wassulu Don’. A bold sonic approach, fusing the dynamism of traditional Wassoulou rhythms with the language of contemporary music, ‘Timbuktu’ looks set to become the most ambitious and accomplished work in an already remarkable discography.

“Music is within me,” Oumou declares. “Without it, I’m nothing, and nothing can take it away from me! I’ve put my life into this record, my whole life–this life in which I’ve known hunger, the humiliation of poverty and fear, and from which today, I draw glory.”

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