hide captionOumou Sangare is known for speaking out on women's issues.
With the death of Miriam Makeba, Mali's Oumou Sangare stands unchallenged as Africa's most important female singer. Sangare was singing for money at age 5 and supporting her family at 13. Now, after a 12-year absence during which she raised a son and ran a hotel, a farm and other businesses, she has released a new album called Seya.
No major African musician has been more outspoken about women's issues. Take the song "Wele Wele Wintou," which criticizes child marriage. The title phrase, which repeats many times during the frenetic five-minute track, means something like "ring the bells." In between "wele weles," Sangare warns fathers that girls shouldn't marry before they have breasts, which is when their life as women begins. For Malian women, Sangare is unquestionably an inspiration.
But in America, her political muscle is conveyed mostly through music. Notice the flute and drums on the lead track, "Sounsoumba." I'm glad "Sounsoumba" advocates "respect for women" and "solidarity in marriage." But I don't need to know exactly what Sangare is saying, because I'm so impressed by what she's saying it over: the turbo power of Paris-based, Guadeloupe-raised, Ivory Coast-born flutist Malik Mezzadri and trap drums by Will Calhoun of the American rock band Living Colour.
Sangare's will to marshal such forces is new. When she came up in the '90s, she was known for just slightly modernizing the rural music of the Malian south. Seya is far more varied and ambitious, utilizing more than 50 backup players. "Donso" is an allegorical song about hunting, but notice the violin intro; the hypnotic rhythm is traditional. But that violin part conjures the Cairo string sound that dominated North African pop for a half-century.
Clearly a woman of power, Oumou Sangare is claiming that sound, and this proud internationalism only makes her seem stronger. But ultimately, her strength proceeds from her commitment to Mali. Nowhere on the album is she more robust than in its finale. "Koroko" means entertainer, and on the song of the same name, some dozen Malian men and women help Sangare celebrate all the korokos who vitalized her impoverished nation before her.