Oumou Sangaré Challenges Tradition As The Songbird Of Wassoulou

Oumou Sangaré

The Guided Point of The West

On Sangaré’s 2017 album Mogoya

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

Mali

By the time she’d 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 band’s 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 issues and 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.”
— Oumou Sangaré

The Wave Against Imbalance

Sangaré performing “Fadjamou” from Mogoya

Despite reaching huge success as an adolescent, Oumou, now 51, continues to live as the “Songbird of Wassoulou”. After remaining quiet on the music front for several years (instead focusing on supporting the Malian community and her various hotel and car businesses), Sangaré resurfaced with material seemingly out of nowhere but welcome 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.

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