Herstory 33: Oumou Sangaré Challenges Tradition As The Songbird Of Wassoulou
The Guided Point of The West
When the term ‘World Music’ was coined as its own genre in the 1960s, it changed the scope of how we engage with artists internationally. What is often vaguely defined as “any of various styles of popular music combining traditional, indigenous forms with elements of another culture’s music”. Its nature is all-encompassing and with its inherent malleability makes it understandably difficult to truly reach a central definition. You may hear a lot of artists that are based out of various regions across Africa, for example, grouped into the category and all too often unpermitted to depart. Imagine arriving to a dinner party only to be greeted with an apron and told that the punch is low on ice. This can sometimes limit the artistic voices that we are exposed to. And what we miss within those limitations are often a deep exploration of identity and experiences. Today, we explore the career and impact of one of West Africa’s talents, Oumou Sangaré.
Within the West African territory, Wassoulou exists as a historical region that sits at the point where the borders of Ivory Coast, Mali, Guinea intersect. Outside of being a West African region, Wassoulou acts as a cultural area that has developed into a music genre of its own. The sounds of Wassoulou hold a vibrant and distinct voice. It is a genre traditionally performed by womxn artists accompanied by regional instruments (i.e. the bolon, kamalen n’goni, and djembedrum) and lyrical content that centers on topics like fertility, gender inequality, and marriage. Some of the most notable representation of the genre that aimed to craft their own artistry have been Coumba Sidibe, Sali Sidibe, and Fatoumata Diawara.
The Song’s Journey
Sangaréo was born in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, in February of 1968. Her mother, Aminata Diakité had raised Oumou to follow in her musical path (working as a professional singer herself). After her father had taken an additional wife and subsequently abandoned his first family, Oumou continued to develop her singing abilities and perform in order to help support her family.
By the time Oumou reached adolescence, she had already become a locally recognized singer in the region. Taking the role of lead vocalist for a Malian group, Djoliba Percussions, Sangaré capitalized on the opportunity to tour Europe and developing her songwriting abilities. Returning from the tour, Oumou immediately sought to form her own band and begin to craft her sound, largely influenced by Wassoulou culture. After immense experimentation, Oumou and her band travelled to Ivory Coast to record what became her first solo album, Moussolou. Following its release in 1990, Oumou solidified her position as a prominent Wassoulou and West African pop star both locally and internationally. Audiences were closely drawn to her mellow voice and towering technical skill, but also the stories that she weaved throughout her discography. She has continued to fight for womxn liberation, expressing herself against conversations that are often erased from the conversation.
I speak of the wom[x]n of Africa and of the whole world…I fight for the improvement of wom[x]n’s situation, because African Wom[x]n do not have as many rights as men.…But if that wom[x]n wants to speak in the society, she is not listened to. So I sing her cause.”
The Wave Against Imbalance
Despite reaching huge success as an adolescent, Oumou, now 51, continues to live as “The Songbird of Wassoulou”. After remaining relatively quiet on the music front for several years (instead focusing on supporting the Malian community and her various business ventures), Sangaré resurfaced with material seemingly out of nowhere but welcomed all the same.
Years later, West African pop is still placed under the “World Music’ label and seems to have a long way to go before it is free to breathe. The necessary criticism is that the term is ratified in relation to its Global West counterpart. Oumou Sangaré challenges that and carries feminist values, joy, and resilience across West Africa to change the generational cycle and creating something better.
Here’s a playlist of works by Oumou Sangaré:
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for the global, music community.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series — we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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