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World Circuit/Nonesuch

Thirtysomething beauty brings liberation songs to West Africa

Anyone who has heard Oumou Sangare launch one of her earthy womanist anthems will covet this well-programmed two-disc compilation, comprising 12 tracks from her three '90s albums, a new one, a worthy remix and half an hour of songs from the 2001 Mali-only cassette Laban. She's Afropop's all-time leading lady, already more momentous than South African freedom fighter Miriam Makeba or Parisian fashion force Angelique Kidjo. It helps that she's a natural feminist, fearlessly expressing women's politics and erotics in the teeth of Muslim West Africa's male supremacy. But it seals the deal that the only male Malians whose music reaches as far are Salif Keita and perhaps true-blues hustler Ali Farka Toure. Adding Western instruments to the herky-jerk harp and circular choruses of southern Mali, Sangare's hypnotic, rousing wassoulou style showcases a voice simultaneously assertive and girlish, seductive and maternal. The notes explain the lyrics. But without knowing a word of Bambara, you'll hear how much she respects the old ways and how little she kowtows to them.

Blender, May 2004