Until a decade or so ago, the title ‘diva’ denoted artistic excellence, and was selectively awarded to female opera stars or singers; whereas in today’s instant fame industry, it’s a term too easily distributed to inexperienced and undeserving entertainers.
But Oumou Sangare is a genuine superstar. Described as “Mali’s greatest diva”, she’s honoured in her birthplace and is acclaimed as one of the world’s most powerful vocalists.
While her projection is fluid and flexible, she encapsulates poise and sings with purpose – a poignant lyricist, who courageously articulates ‘unspoken’ issues, like female circumcision and forced marriages.
Since her 1990 debut Moussolou (“Women”), which was a hit in her homeland before launching her internationally, she has outspokenly encouraged gender equality and tirelessly asserted human rights through song.
With an authenticity which overrides language limitations, Oumou is universally ‘understandable’ – and this is probably attributed to her upbringing.
Oumou was only two when her father took a second wife and immigrated to the Ivory Coast, leaving her pregnant mother with three small children.
Singlehandedly she struggled to support her family, but being a Wassoulo singer enabled her mother to source an income through the ‘sumu’. Sometimes called ‘street parties’, these wedding and baptism celebrations were organised by women, and from the age of five, Oumou accompanied her mother and was soon in demand in her own right. By the age of thirteen she had become the family breadwinner.
Originally from a remote forest region in the south of Mali, the Wassoulou have a rich, distinctive culture, and are known for their hypnotic dance rhythms. As hunters they were the protectors, providers of food and healers, and their music is believed to have magical powers.
Wassoulou lyrics address everyday life, and from the outset Oumou’s vision was to honour her heritage, by encapsulating the power and charm of this sound into her own songs.
With her music as liberating as her words, she combines traditional instrumentation with urban sophistication; ancient rhythms with funk-driven, contemporary groove.
As Oumou Sangare’s first international release in six years, Seya [“Joy” ]has been worth the wait, and as with all her previous albums, the production quality is superb.
Backed by an all-star ensemble she brings together Malian masters like her longtime accompanist “Benogo” Brehima Diakité (kamele ngoni); with international veterans like Pee Wee Ellis, Fred Wesley; and Afrobeat’s musical director and master-drummer Tony Allen.
“Seya” presents the sound of a universal Africa – it amplifies the ancestral in a timeless treasure of urban hipness – a solid assertion of specific identities with global appeal.
Actually, the Latin root of ‘diva’ is “goddess” – the female of ‘divus’, meaning “divine” or “ divine one” – and if Oumou Sangare’s voice is anything to go by, then heavenly she is!