Ten Kola Nuts

When I first heard Oumou Sangare's Moussolou, the debut that made her a star at 21, I was so drawn to the sound that I pegged it for my own top 10 before I comprehended a single word. I knew nothing of the singer's politics. Her popular "Ah Ndiya" was running through my head while I still thought the refrain was a woman's name, or a womanish-sounding place like Andorra or Georgia; in Banbara, it means "Oh My Love." I certainly didn't know she represented a different strand of Malian music from the dominant style, jali. Wassoulou, named for the southern region it comes from, has origins not in the ancient Malian courts but in hunting parties and agricultural festivals. It features a banjolike instrument that's supposedly redolent of youthful rebellion, has a topical and personal focus and no musical caste system, and is 90 per cent female. Jali, though it includes more women than you might expect in an Islamic culture, is fundamentally conservative, performed by hereditary griots who literally sing the praises of the powerful.

Had I know all that, it might have informed my interest, but I think what I loved most about the music--so spare, so strangely circular--was that I didn't understand it. I heard exquisitely sustained irresolution as structural convention. Plucked strings that back home may well signify adolescent attitude sounded rural to me, as did the childish timbre of the chorus; vocal techniques that simply reflect an Arabic influence sounded like pure yearning. What I thought I heard was music bearing an extraordinarily beautiful tradition, that had not been hybridized so much as underlined or spelled in large print. And I wasn't so far off the mark. Once you find the translations, you realize that tradition is basically Sangare's subject--"Ah Ndiya" is about the tension between new and old concepts of love. What gets lost in translation is the tone; even when the liner notes tell me is so many words that Sangare is being ironic, I just hear compassion.

There were dozens of Africans at Sangare's Symphony Space show, on the oddly timed tour for her third album, Worotan (World Circuit), which is available as an import but won't be officially released here until January. The band--a trim group including electric bass and guitar and Western-style flute, plus the Malian stringed kamalengoni and djembe drum--warmed up briefly. (Percussion would later be added by cowrie-trimmed calabashes flung and caught in precise rhythms by Sangare and chorus.) Meanwhile, the chorus, two very young women wearing tiny cowrie-trimmed minis, flung their braids in a hair-flailing extravaganza that is one of the region's signature moves. They were so completely captivating that I wondered whether they'd steal the show, until Sangare's voice floated in from offstage, followed by herself, in red silk robes and turban. Immediately it was clear that upstaging Oumou Sangare would not be an issue.

Sangare began performing at age six, when, the story goes, her mother told her to "sing like you're at home in the kitchen." The advice seems to have stuck. Large bodied, imposing, and gorgeously attired, she remained relaxed enough at Symphony Space to make impromptu midact costume changes as unselfconsciously as the Aretha Franklin I once saw slipping out of her mules at Radio City. She exchanged banter with Malians in the audience and graciously accepted an uncommon profusion of cash gifts midsong without losing a beat, whether she was on one of the anguished high notes or the more conversational low ones.

And her feminism seemed just as down-to-earth. Sangare is known as an outspoken champion of Malian women's rights, and many of her songs address the bewildering rules a bride faces. Moussolou means "women"; its follow-up, Ko Sira, means "marriage today"; and Worotan is literally "10 kola nuts," the price of a bride. But knowing this was no preparation for the sisterly diva who stared us straight in the eye and lectured against polygamy and for "l'emancipation des femmes!" and, during the gift parade, which is usually a male province, embraced or even kissed most of the many women who approached. And truly--as Sangare admitted in French about our second-act sing-along--I didn't expect this. I came for world music. I got world feminism.

The first act was hard to follow, even given act 2's costume change: a black evening dress with cowrie bustier. At one point, Sangare seemed frustrated when she joined the chorus dancing--until her eyes lit up and she bent down, unstrapped and flung off her high heels, and then, wrapping her head scarf around her waist for emphasis, got down. The sing-along was indeed respectable, actually changing the way the music sounded. There was "Dj˘r˘len," a chilling birdlike solo over flute. And for her finale, amazingly, Sangare got women, white and black, onstage to try that hair-flailing business, and I swear, everyone sort of got it. The one who didn't try had something more strictly African American in mind--tough and funny.

Worotan features guest performances from James Brown's old bandleader, Pee Wee Ellis, with a horn trio, as well as British Asian guitarist Nitin Sawhney on "Dj˘r˘len," which turns out to be a songbird's lament for human sorrow and ends: "More and more we live in a world ruled by individualism." With this in mind I'll conclude by recommending an old collection to which Sangare contributes just one of nine cuts, Women of Mali (Stern's Africa). With tracks from one of Sangare's contemporaries and two of her predecessors, this less sculpted, less propulsive album emphasizes the tradition--structures, textures, timbres, and spirit. It locates an unprecedented artist in a context that's obviously extraordinary in itself.

Village Voice, Nov. 26, 1996