Oumou Sangaré (b. 1968, Mali)
Wassoulou musical style, Fulani culture

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Though born in Bamako in February 1968, Oumou Sangaré is a native of the Wassoulou region, a lush green area of southern Mali on the border with Guinea.   Musically this is a very rich area, considered the cradle of the finest voices in the country. Oumou Sangaré, a Peul, is not a member of the Griot caste.

"In Wassoulou tradition, it is usually the men who dance and the women who sing at ceremonies. My mother did so, and my grandmother was something of a star. They sang at weddings and baptisms, and I learned their art when I accompanied them."   

She joined the Djoliba percussion ensemble in 1986, leaving Mali for the first time on a tour that took her to France, Germany and the West Indies. On her return, she embarked on a solo career, but still went on singing at weddings and baptisms.

"Like all woman performers in Africa, I had a lot of difficulty at the beginning. It isn't easy for them to direct a group of men. But I wasn't disheartened, because making music is the thing I hold dearest."

In 1989, producer Ahmadou Ba Guindo brought her to Abidjan to record her first album, Moussolou ,which came out a year later. Oumou Sangaré was a star overnight. Her album topped sales in Mali for 1990.  And in 1993, with her second album, she made her mark on the European world circuit. Called Ko Sira ("song of the young girls going down to the marigot"), recorded in Berlin and mixed in London, it stayed at the top of the Musiques au Mondes charts for three straight months. The lead title was "Bi Fourou", or "Marriage Today," a strong attack on the practice of forced marriages. Another number, "Saa Magni," is a particularly poignant recitative song, an ode to the memory of a friend who has died too soon.

Oh death, oh death

Death is too hard

Death is too cruel

Death, that has struck Ahmadou Ba Guindo

But death spares no one

Nothing stops it

Not even glory

Or having many children

Great wealth and abundant friends.

The music of this "Wassoulou gazelle", also called "the nightingale", is of the style created by Koumba Sidibé. It is characterized by short, rapid vocal phrasing. Oumou projects her limpid voice against a background of perfectly placed chorus singers. Her voice goes from one high register to another even higher, intertwining with the pulsing sound of the kamale n'goni , a sort of six-stringed kora commonly known as the "kids' guitar".  Oumou Sangaré has formed a group around this formation that contributes so largely to her particular sound: electric bass, guitar, violins with Arab overtones, flute, chorus, and percussion provided by the carignan , a metal grater struck with a piece of iron. She takes the musical tradition of the Wassoulou hunters, and turns it into something utterly modern.

Oumou Sangaré lives in Bamako [Mali], and uses her songs to wage a campaign in favour of the role of women in African society. "I embraced the cause of women even before I sang." The words to her songs, in the Wassoulou language, are in the Malinke moral homily tradition. They talk of feelings, and of society. "Dugu Kamelemba" ("skirt chaser") tells of a woman who is seduced, then abandoned.  Oumou Sangaré has respect for tradition, but attacks pitilessly the abuses of polygamy and arranged marriages : "I have lived in a polygamous family, and have seen how blighted women are. I have hated polygamy ever since. It is hard, in my opinion, to share a heart." She sings of the confusion of African woman, torn "between traditional values and those of society today, which in my songs are represented by the ancestral forests and the city. I have tried to make my music modern, because life in Africa is changing. We must evolve. I support the women of Africa in their effort to express themselves. It is time the voice of women was heard, their contribution recognised."

Sangare’s Discography :

Moussolou , WCD 021, World Circuit, 1991 (distributed by Night and Day)

Ko Sira , WCD 036, World Circuit, 1993 (distributed by Night and Day)

(Source:  Wim Westerveld, Chazz!, Netherlands;  Available at:
http://www.ina.fr/AeS/5/5_95_08.en.html (accessed July 1997)

See also Index to 100 CD Intro to African Music – in French and English
http://www.ina.fr/CP/AfricArt/100CD/index_principal.html (accessed July 1997)

Female Griots among the Fulani [or Peul]

Perhaps Sangare’s gifted Fulani grandmother was a female griot (called Awlube) who specialized in oral song-poetry like the “Yela.”  Scholar Abdoul Aziz Sow explains:

“Accompanied by gourds that are pounded on the ground, the Yela is a collection of songs of eulogy, denigration and entertainment; they are sung by the women from the caste of the Awlube (griots) and are addressed to people from the noble castes.  Reputedly introduced to the Futa Toro as a consequence of Koli Tenella's sixteenth-century conquests, the Yela exists in several versions (e.g., that of the Haal pulaar'en, that of the Fulani in Boundou, and that of the Bambara), but they all share a common melody.

“…[T]he Yela is sung with very few variations.  A number of the songs were composed long ago and handed down unchanged for generations. In fact, other than the great established songs, there are no new compositions; the fragments that are still being performed were transmitted in their present form without modification, except for the names of the people to whom they are addressed. The song always begins with a collection of untranslatable sentences or phrases:

Eee yuu siree

Yee woyyoo yelaa ee! (refrain)

Aayee yeelee! (refrain taken up in chorus by the other women)

Aayoo yuu siree

Ee ooro leyyoo laala laalaa

Aayee yeelee (refrain)

Ala yoo laala laalaa

Alaa laa leyyoo

Ee yoolee!

Aayee yeelee (refrain)

After this prelude, the song continues:

Yimde welii

Ko yimtaade welii yoo!

Aayee yeelee! (refrain)

Mbodo yima laamdo

Mo naana kelle e cakaade.

Aayee yeelee! (Refrain)

 [English Translation:]

 [How good it is to sing

Oh! It's good to sing (oneself)


I sing about a sovereign

Who never hears the shouts of the people.]

“Sung under all sorts of circumstances (e.g., weddings, baptisms, and other Fulani celebrations), the Yela begins when a group of female griots sit down with their gourds, which they pound on the ground.  One or two of the women set the beat; the others take up the choral refrain. The young unmarried female griots are allowed to dance while manipulating a shawl. On rare occasions, a Bammbaado (guitarist) might accompany the women, playing a melody that is known as ana. Under no circumstances are the men permitted to sing with the women, for the men have specialized in the genealogies of the great families. . .

“The most striking aspect of Fulani oral poetry is its rhythm.  Indeed, rhythm is the most important defining characteristic of African poetry:  It is its very essence. The skillful use of numerous linguistic resources in this poetry is obscured in English, which is insufficiently flexible to convey many of the verbal and aesthetic nuances of the Fulani originals.  In any case, the poet is as indispensable to Fulani society as any other individual.  Steward and artisan of the word, crystallizer of the people's collective memory, eulogist of the ancestors' noble deeds and exploits, [s/]he remains the genuine promoter of cultural and social values.”

Source:  Sow, Abdoul Aziz.  “Fulani Poetic Genres.”(Special Issue: Oral Literature) Research in African Literatures 24.2(Summer 1993): 61(17pp).   Full text available at COCC: Infotrac 2000 Expanded Academic ASAP Article A13891469.

Abstract: “The Fulani people of the northern Senegal River have songs which fit poetic genres. There are different songs for fishermen, weavers, warriors, hunters, cattle drivers, women griots, merchants, nomad entertainment, shepherds, lullabies, eulogies, rejoicing, mockery and special occasions. Examples of the poems are provided.”

Review of Oumou Sangare’s CD Worotan 
(Afrique en Créations-Paris 1997; language: Bambara)
Supporting Musicians on CD Worotan:
 Nabintou Diakité and Alima Touré, chorus
Brehima Diakité, kamale n'goni
Boubacar Diallo, guitar
Aliou Traoré, violin
Colin Bass and Alou Ouattara, bass guitars
Ibrahima Sarr, djembé

“No one could better illustrate the Wassoulou style than this young, radiant, highly accomplished artist. With her pure voice, clear as spring water, and the supple swaying of her carefully woven orchestration, she brings new life to the musical tradition of the hunters, lifting it to a subtle peak of perfection so appreciated by lovers of world music. Her taste is perfect. The kamelen n'goni, a small six-string harp played off the beat, sprinkles its rustic, muffled, piquant arpeggios. The electric guitar and bass weave in and out of the melodic modulations, alternately loose and tight, brought together by fluted choral refrains. The polyrhythms played by the djembe, the large half-calabashes and with cauris (instruments played by women at wedding ceremonies in the Sikasso region) never descend to the standard two-four time that inundates our radio waves. These songs radiate an exquisite charm, as does Oumou Sangare herself: she is a much-cherished diva whose third album deserves every success.”

Available from:  http://www.ina.fr/AfricArt/100CD/CD/017.html
World Circuit (WCD 045), Aire Mandingue, Mandingue region, Mali

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Last updated: 03 January 2010

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