Born in 1968 in Bamako, Mali; daughter of Aminata Diakhite (a singer); married, with one child (a son). Addresses: Record labels--World Circuit Ltd., Cleveland St., London W1P 5DP, U.K.; Nonesuch Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019. Manager and booking agent--Chazz! Wim Westerveld, P.O. Box 292, 6500 AG Nijmegen, Holland.

Oumou Sangare is the voice of feminism in West Africa. In a region where polygamy is the norm, and women are often viewed as the property of their husbands, Sangare's music has come to symbolize the struggle against gender imbalance. In addition to their social content, Sangare's songs are full of the joy and spirit that the traditional rhythms of Mali have been communicating for generations. During the mid-1990s, Sangare has become one of Africa's biggest pop stars, as well as a major force in the European and American world music scenes.

Sangare was born in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in 1968. Her parents had migrated to the city from the rural Wassoulou region south of the Niger River. Her mother, Aminata Diakhite, was also a talented singer and encouraged her daughter to follow in her footsteps. Sangare made her public performing debut at the age of six, singing for a huge crowd at Bamako's main sports arena, the Stade des Omnisports. Before the show began, her mother counseled her, according to her Nonesuch Records bio, to "sing like you're at home in the kitchen."

Her mother's advice apparently paid off, for Sangare's talent soon earned her membership in The National Ensemble of Mali, which serves as a training ground for the best musicians in that country. In 1986 Sangare was invited by Bamba Dambele, known for his work with the African pop ensemble Super Djata Band, to tour Europe with his traditional percussion troupe Djobila. The European tour opened Sangare's eyes to the possibility of an international career of her own. Upon her return to Mali, she immediately went to work forming her own band and developing a songwriting style and sound that effectively blended Wassoulou tradition with a modern pop sensibility.

Since Mali gained its independence in the early 1960s, the Wassoulou region has produced a steady flow of wonderful female vocalists. These singers--a group that has included Coumba Sidibe, Sali Sidibe, and Flan Saran--collectively influenced the creation of a musical style based on the region's traditional dances and rhythms. Those rhythms, combined with local instruments such as the djembe drum and the kamalengoni--a harp-like instrument invented by local youths during this period--eventually gave rise to a new popular musical style called Wassoulou, named after the region in which it originated. The Wassoulou style communicates a sense of youthful rebellion and freedom.

Working with well-known arranger Amadou Ba Guindo, Sangare put together a band that included Boubacar Diallo on guitar and Aliou Traore on violin. The band's goal was to further update the sound of Wassoulou in order to keep it fresh. For example, they used a modern violin in place of the soku, the traditional horse-hair fiddle previously used in Wassoulou. After two years of experimentation, the band traveled to the Ivory Coast to make its first studio recording. The resulting cassette, Moussolou--meaning "Women"--consisted of six original songs by Sangare. Released in 1989, Moussolou eventually sold more than 200,000 copies, and made Sangare a sensation in her native country.

Over the next couple of years, Sangare became one of West Africa's biggest musical stars, and Moussolou has become a classic of African pop. It took until 1991, when the British label World Circuit picked up the rights for the album outside of Africa, for Sangare to gain a significant international following. With a growing reputation in Europe, Sangare went to work writing songs for her follow- up album. Ko Sira (Marriage Today) was recorded in Berlin and released on World Circuit in 1993. On Ko Sira, Sangare used a bigger band than on her previous album. Its songs included a tribute to Amadou Ba Guindo, who had died in an automobile crash, and several tunes dealing with the plight of women in Africa, forced to play the role of servants to their polygamous husbands. Well received all over the globe, Ko Sira was voted "European World Music Album of the Year" for 1993. Milo Miles of the New York Times attributed to the album "a rare grace ... that akes any future Sangare recordings and her promised live appearances ... as enticing as any in world pop."

By this time Sangare had achieved idol status back home in Mali. Not slowed by the birth of her first child, she toured across Africa and Europe in 1993. The following year, she made her second trip to the United States, as part of the Africa Fete package tour. The highlight of her triumphant U.S. tour was a captivating appearance at Summer Stage in New York's Central Park. Sangare released her third album, Worotan, in the U.K. in 1996, and it remained atop the European world music charts for months. The album was released in the U.S. the following summer. On Worotan--which means "ten kola nuts," the traditional price for a wife in Mali--Sangare added a few new elements to her music, including the contribution of Pee Wee Ellis, a horn player who had made his mark as a sideman with soul giant James Brown. The album also featured a hot young guitarist by the name of Baba Salah. Newsweek magazine gushed that "Worotan brings seemingly distant issues like polygamy into uncanny poetic focus," and compared Sangare to a young Aretha Franklin.

In live performances, Sangare is by all accounts a striking presence. Standing well over six feet tall in heels and a towering headwrap, she projects as much power with her appearance as she does with her voice. She generally performs in stunningly colorful flowing robes and other traditional African garb. It is the music and its message rather than the apparel, however, that are making Sangare an international sensation. "When you do music, you do it for everyone ...," she was quoted as saying by the Africa News Service. "I welcome all ideas, all instruments. I want to mix everything, because I want everyone to participate."

Participation is easy for Westerners, who appreciate Sangare's music primarily for its danceable rhythms. For the African women whom she champions, participation is something that must be fought for on a daily basis. "I speak of the women of Africa and of the whole world," Sangare's press kit quotes her as saying. "I fight for the improvement of women's situation, because African Women do not have as many rights as men .... But if that woman wants to speak in the society, she is not listened to. So I sing her cause."

by Robert R. Jacobson

Oumou Sangare's Career

First public performance, at Stade des Omnisports, Bamako, 1974; member National Ensemble of Mali, mid-1980s; toured Europe with Bamba Dambele and Djoliba, 1986; formed own band, 1987; made first recording, Moussolou, 1989; Moussolou released internationally, 1991; released Ko Sira, 1993; released Worotan, 1996; toured throughout Europe and Africa, 1993; performed across U.S. as part of "Africa Fete" package tour, 1994-95; toured U.S. again in 1997.

Oumou Sangare's Awards

European World Music Album of the Year, for Ko Sira, 1993.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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