Singer who fuses tradition with modernity

The “Songbird of Wassoulou” has returned with the album Mogoya (the title translates from her native Bambara language. PHOTO | COURTESY
The “Songbird of Wassoulou” has returned with the album Mogoya (the title translates from her native Bambara language. PHOTO | COURTESY 

The release of a long-anticipated album from one of the truly influential African singers of the modern era is bound to create excitement among her global fan base.

It is eight years since Malian singer Oumou Sangare released her last album Seya and so the news of a new set of songs last week has excited followers of what is generally categorised as World Music.

The “Songbird of Wassoulou” has returned with the album Mogoya (the title translates from her native Bambara language as “people today”). Her distinctive voice remains as formidable as it has always been and the sound of the music is rooted in Malian tradition but with some striking edgy elements.

Recorded in Stockholm and produced in Paris by the production team of A.L.B.E.R.T, the album of nine songs retains the cultural heritage from the Malian region of Wassoulou while incorporating futuristic elements.


Oumou explains: “This time I wanted to go for more of a modern sound to satisfy young people in Mali, but being careful, all the while, to respect my culture and my tradition.”

Traditional Malian instruments like the kamele n’goni (harp), karignan (metal scraper) and calabash percussion are combined with electric guitar, tight bass riffs, keyboard and synthesiser.

Nigerian drummer, composer and songwriter, Tony Allen, who was once band leader of Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 plays percussions on the song Yere Faga as Oumou’s voice soars above a funky bassline. The song deals with suicide as Oumou sings: “don’t kill yourself because of suffering, life on this earth is not easy”.

Mogoya is a slow melody as keyboards and cello accompany her haunting vocal delivery while the pace picks up with the exciting grooves of the call-and-response “Kounkoun” and one of the album highlights, “Kamelemba”

This is only the fifth studio album since Oumou’s debut in 1990 at the age of 20. Her parents came from Wassoulou the region in southern Mali, which has a rich tradition of hunters’ songs and has produced international female stars like Coumba Sidibe and Fatoumata Diawara. The latter performed at the Safaricom International jazz Festival in 2016.

Raised by a single mother who earned a living performing at traditional wedding ceremonies and baptisms, Oumou has used her music to campaign for the position of women in Mali.

Her own father abandoned his family and emigrated to Cote d’Ivoire after taking a second wife, an experience that has led to her outspoken denunciation of polygamy.

Previous albums

The tiles of her previous albums and songs are a reflection of the causes she champions: Her first album was titled Moussoulou (women), and her second album included a song called “Dugu Kamalemba” (which translates as “the womaniser”).

The title of her third album, Worotan (ten kola nuts), a reference to the price of a bride in an arranged marriage. On her 2003 compilation, Oumou she wrote Magnoumako (agony) about her mother’s suffering, “how she wept and struggled”

“My role is to speak directly to women through my songs and setting an example and showing they can make their own decisions,” she says. On her new album Oumou pays tribute her mother’s courage and resilience in the song Minata Waraba (Aminata the Lioness)

“Woman have a hard time in Africa. We have no choice, our men do all the talking for us,” she says.

Pop collaboration

Oumou ’s music has earned her a host of accolades including the 2001 Unesco International Music Prize and in 2003 she was named Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agricultural Organisation. Her album Seya was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Album in 2010.

The next year, she won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration, alongside American musicians India Arie, Seal, Herbie Hancock and Konono No.1 from DRC. Her music was also featured on the soundtrack of the 1998 film Beloved starring Oprah Winfrey.

With the album Mogoya, Oumou proves that African artistes do not have to sacrifice their cultural identity even as they embrace some of the modern electronic trends that will introduce their music to a whole new generation.