Interview: Oumou Sangaré Proves Why She’s the Songbird of Wassoulou

When Oumou Sangaré tells me freedom is at her core, I am not surprised. If you listen to her discography, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a song that doesn’t center or in some way touch on women’s rights or child abuse. The Grammy award-winning Malian singer has spent a significant part of her career using her voice to fight for the rights of women across Africa and the world, a testimony to this is her naming her debut studio album Moussolou, meaning Woman. The album, a pure masterpiece that solidified Oumou’s place amongst the greats and earned her the name ‘Songbird of Wassoulou,’ was a commercial success selling over 250,000 records in Africa and would in turn go on to inspire other singers across the world.

On her latest body of work Acoustic, a reworking of her critically acclaimed 2017 album Mogoya, Oumou Sangaré proves how and why she earned her accolades. The entirety of the 11-track album was recorded within two days in the Midi Live studio in Villetaneuse in ‘live’ conditions—with no amplification, no retakes or overdubs, no headphones. Throughout the album, using her powerful and raw voice that has come to define feminism in Africa and shaped opinions across the continent, Oumou boldly addresses themes like loss, polygamy and female circumcision.

We caught up with the Malian singer at the studio she is staying while in quarantine to talk about her new album, longevity as an artist, and growing up in Mali.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


How would you define good music?

What defines good music is the ability for an artist to spread a good spirit and positive energy in it. People will instantly relate to a good soul. The sound of an artist with a good spirit can travel everywhere, even if people don’t understand your lyrics.

What was it like growing up in Mali?

After my father took a second wife and abandoned my mother, I had to help her feed the family. I used to sell water in the street, to sing. We were singing together at ceremonies. Even if I had to struggle, I enjoyed growing up in Bamako. That’s what has given me strength in life.

u200bOumou Sangaru00e9 throwing her head back, braids in the air.Oumou Sangaré.Photo: Benoit Peverelli

One thing that has been consistent in your career and discography is your passion for issues that center women and women’s rights, has this been a deliberate choice or did you just find yourself singing about this often?

It was a deliberate choice to speak about women’s conditions. I couldn’t stay silent after having seen so many women suffer around me, starting with my mother’s pain. I promised myself that one day I will scream about this problem to the whole world. In my first album Moussolou (the title means Women) I spoke again the abuses of polygamy, arranged marriage, and the inequalities that Malian women endure. I always tried to show that we could do things based on our own decisions and to be autonomous.

What do you think earn singers longevity, especially the type you have?

I think that if you stay natural and sincere with your music, you will manage to keep this longevity. I’ve always tried to explore new sounds, to get into something new, but being careful, all the while, to respect my culture and tradition from Wassoulou. People will appreciate and recognize your honesty in your craft. You have to never stop working on your thing and to keep faith in what you are doing.

“Mood 4 Eva” from Beyoncé’s Lion King: The Gift album was quite a moment, what was it like for you?

On its release date, I received a call saying that a sample of my song “Diaraby Nene” was used in “Mood 4 Eva.” So, I didn’t directly collaborate with Beyoncé or the great artists and producers involved in the song. I really like this new version, and we finally found an agreement. I am a big fan of Beyoncé. People in Mali were really proud as well. It’s great to see that more and more artists are celebrating and sharing African music with us. We built a strong cultural bridge.

What has it been like making your album Acoustic with everything going on in the world?

I recorded my album Acoustic last summer in Paris’ suburbs. Even though I made it almost a year ago, the themes and lyrics that I have addressed still resonate with the current situation that we are living in the world now. With this new project, I revisit most of my songs from my previous release Mogoya, which means “people today” or “human relations,” I worried about today’s relationships between humans both on a personal level and more globally in our society.

u200bOumou Sangaru00e9 mid profile shot of her looking downwards.Oumou Sangaré.Photo: Benoit Peverelli

Tell me about Acoustic, what is the inspiration and story behind it?

After a fully acoustic performance that I gave in London, my record label and I discussed the idea of an unplugged album. They loved the energy on stage, the space it created for my voice, and the raw sound that emerged from the amazing musicians gathered around me. I liked this spontaneous and natural approach, as If you were playing just between friends. It’s a way of recording that afforded each musician the joy of reconnecting with the natural sound of his or her instrument. You can hear the purely acoustic sounds of the Wassoulou melodies without embellishments. There are my talented backing singers Emma Lamadji and Kandy Guira, the musical director and great guitarist Guimba Kouyaté and Brahima ‘Benogo’ Diakité, a virtuoso player of the kamele ngoni, who has been with me since my first album Moussolou. Vincent Taurelle from the Parisian collective Albert, joined the band on Ton, toy organ and celesta.

Why are you choosing to release the music now?

With the hard times we are living now, I thought it was a moment where I could bring something to warm hearts and souls. A little something that could help our brothers and sisters in the frontline, those struggling and/or in pain – and make them feel better, whether it be in Mali, in the US or somewhere else in the world.

What do you think the African music industry will look in the next five years?

The whole world is dancing to African music, people are moving on our rhythms and beats. African music is doing very well.
I am sure that the African music industry will continue to flourish in the following years. But we need to be careful, and to keep learning on how to organize ourselves and to structure it in order to preserve this priceless wealth and all of our cultural heritage. We have to take care of it, otherwise, it could cost us dearly in the future.

Who would you say are your biggest influences?

My mother is my number one mentor. I learned to sing and to be streetwise from her. I pay tribute to her in the song “Minata Waraba” (Minata the Lioness). I love everything about Bob Marley, his frankness, his music and continuous fight against injustices. We used to dance a lot to “Get Up, Stand Up,” even if we didn’t understand what he was saying. The emotion in his voice is thrilling. I also really like Miriam Makeba, she has inspired me a lot. A fierce fighter who struggled against apartheid until her last breath. And I listen a lot to Coumba Sidibé, a true ambassador of the culture and sound of Wassoulou.