Posts Tagged ‘mali’

Oumou Sangaré: Mali’s muse

Posted on July 18th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .


Malian diva Oumou Sangaré is making a long-awaited comeback. Pierre Cuny speaks to her about returning to the recording studio and the themes that inspire her songs

Over the years, the reputation of Oumou Sangaré, one of the greatest living Malian singers, has grown from a socially conscious local artist to a leading African public figure. Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation and a prosperous businesswoman, Oumou has continually maintained the flame of rebellion against injustices. It has always been via music that this figure of African women’s emancipation has transmitted her ideals.

Ever since the elegant reissue last year of Oumou’s successful 1990 recording Moussolou on World Circuit, it was common knowledge in Mali that her new album was on the point of coming out. For fans of the African diva, it was going to be a huge event – not only in Mali but also throughout the continent.

Together with Laurent Bizot, head of No Format!, the French label she has chosen to produce her new musical adventure, Mogoya, Oumou decided to completely shake up her soundscape – very much a conscious decision. She explains: “I selected No Format because they have operated with a large number of African musicians. Laurent has worked for several years with Salif Keita, he knows Malian music very well and he loves black music.” The label also works with other Malian virtuosos such as the supreme kora player Ballaké Sissoko and griot singer Kassé Mady Diabaté, a national treasure in Mali. “Happily, relations with World Circuit and Nick Gold remain solid and we are in complete agreement with this change,” smiles Oumou. Four outstanding albums were produced during 1993 to 2009 with World Circuit, as well as a double-CD compilation, which was released in 2003.

Taking the tapes on which she had been working over the past two years with Swedish producer and bass player Andreas Unge, Oumou travelled to the northern suburb of Paris and met with the three studio magicians who make up the collective known as A.L.B.E.R.T. In their studio jam-packed with sound equipment resembling something like Ali Baba’s cave, the young French musician-producers Vincent Taeger, Vincent Taurelle and Ludovic Bruni had recently completed the last Tony Allen album among other luminaries.

On the strength of her melodies, lyrics and voice alone, the team went to work. Maintaining the essential kamalengoni of Benogo Diakité, the electric guitar of Guimba Kouyaté and occasional drums of Tony Allen, they totally remixed and played over the tapes. Oumou was ecstatic and pushed them to continue. “We did not want Mogoya to sound like something which could have been produced in 1998 or 2000,” explains Bizot. The three musicians advanced with feeling and when they saw that Oumou was confident – telling them to “go for it boys” – they knew they had got it. The result is an album sprinkled with judicious sound effects that creative DJs will undoubtedly be playing to heat up dance floors across the world.

The kamalengoni (or ‘young man’s harp’) propels the sound. This eight-stringed instrument, based on the original Wassoulou ritual hunter’s harp, is the soul of Oumou’s music and her melodies are all accompanied by it. In her concerts Oumou constantly has her eye on the kamalengoni. “Village youngsters who love the rough sound can do anything with it: reggae, funk, rap or blues,” she explains, adding, “good thing that the A.L.B.E.R.T. collective decided to place this instrument in prime position on most of the tracks.”

Clearly in great form, Oumou is holding court at the intimate offices of No Format. With her natural majestic allure, this great lady breathes serenity and goodwill. Actively engaged in international citizen movements and at the head of several successful businesses around Bamako, she still maintains a mischievous, childlike spirit. Her laugh resounds frequently and as she evokes each of her songs you can hear her humming the melodies. Time passes in a most delicious manner.

Eight years have passed since her last studio album, Seya. As Oumou herself explains: “I prepare each song quietly to avoid the stress and take time to think. When my new albums are under preparation, the pressure is unimaginable; everyone is asking, when will it be ready? What will be the theme? My words are extremely important for my fans and so I take time so as not to disappoint them. I create by crafting and caring for my lyrics and do not rush. They are inside of me. At the same time, I have many business occupations: I built a hotel in Bamako, which I manage once again due to the disorder of the team while I was travelling. I also have a large livestock farm with many employees, rice fields and a fish farm, as well as a car dealership. All this while touring incessantly throughout Africa. So I prepare my material slowly avoiding stress and giving me time to think. That is why it has taken so long.”

So that equates to almost one year of work for each of the nine songs on this ambitious album. Like a sage, Oumou’s words offer advice and motivation. She sees her role as trying to diffuse tensions in her country. “I am a Muslim, but certainly not fundamentalist,” she asserts. “I believe in God and respect all other religions and all human beings. I don’t understand the radicalised Muslims. One must respect each other. The songs I write are taken from events in society, events which disturb.”

Despite recent multiple terrorist attacks, Oumou accepted to be godmother to Wassoulou-Ballé, a music festival situated 240km from Bamako. “Our role as an artist is to be with the population, at their side during the most troubled times. Terrorism is at the forefront of everyone’s minds but we must continue to live. Despite the turbulent current situation in Mali, music remains a standing force.”

Speaking of the lyrics featured on Mogoya, which translates as ‘Human Relations Today,’ Oumou describes what she knows best. She is very affected by the tribulations of daily life and specific problems women in Africa face, urging them to overcome their suffering and enjoy life to the full.

One of the most emotional songs on the album is ‘Yere Faga’, sung in Bamana, the vernacular language in Mali. It means suicide. “Suicide has always existed in my country,” she states, “but it is a phenomenon which is increasing alarmingly. People seem to have more and more difficulties that they find overwhelming. I try to tell them to be stronger than the problems and counteract them full on. I have had to face millions of problems in my life, heard so many lies and rumours about myself. I say to people, take example from me and remain strong. The problems will always go away.”

Oumou herself has clearly not been spared from her share of life’s difficulties. Abandoned by her father at a very young age, she possesses a burning ambition to honour her mother who brought up a family of six with no help whatsoever. “My mother – I owe her everything! The force that is in me comes from this brave woman. When my father walked out and went to live in Ivory Coast, it was a catastrophe for us. My mother said to me: ‘Oumou, I have fought alone without compromise, I never sold myself or dirtied my children. I believe in me and in God. It has been so hard but I fought’.” On another very moving song on the album, ‘Minata Waraba’ (Minata the Lioness), Oumou pays homage to her mother, Aminata Diakité.

It was through her mother that Oumou, as a very young child, came to sing. She would accompany her mother at local weddings and baptisms, where Aminata was invited to sing at the ritual services, called soumous. At the age of five, Oumou’s gifted voice, with its strength and clarity, was already the centrepiece of the ceremony. “I had this energy while singing and people would give me money; it would pour from all sides like rain, like an act of God,” she recalls. “I would run home with my T-shirt stuffed with banknotes for my mother!”


Oumou was born in Bamako to a Peul family originating from the forested region of Wassoulou in the south-west of Mali bordering Guinea and Ivory Coast. “Everything was Wassoulou in my home: the mentality, the language, the food,” she says. Her music has a strong connection to the traditions of the brotherhood of hunters of Wassoulou and is primordial in its mentality. It was these same hunters who liberated the country from the oppression of tyranny at the beginning of the 13th century. Their philosophy of freedom centred around their declaration that ‘man is an individual, he is free, his soul lives for three elements: to see what he wants to see, to say what he wants to say, to do what he wants to do.’ This was the basis of the Mande Charter, one of the most ancient constitutions, that dates from the same period as the Magna Carta. The singularity of Oumou is to claim that all Malian women should access this freedom of speech and have the liberty to say no to polygamy and yes to school education.

At the age of 21, Oumou hit the country by storm with her first record, Moussolou. Two of the tracks completely shocked the population of Mali. It was the first time that a female singer had spoken out so freely: ‘Diya Gneba’ encourages women to refuse forced marriage and ‘Diaraby Nene’ openly addresses female desire. Where, I wonder, does this desire for freedom of speech come from? “I am not a griot,” she explains. “A griot addresses only noble or wealthy families. I speak to everyone through my songs, rich or poor, man or woman. I have the right to do it!”

“Women in Mali are traumatised by some of the traditions, such as excision [FGM],” she continues. “It is impossible to make rapid changes to this system and I have to go slowly, explaining and talking regularly about the risks and the suffering that is caused. Everything is done softly and in songs. It is in this way that I am gaining the confidence of women. Once completed, they will stop these traditions. I have faced a lot of social pressure because of this, but things are changing. People are following me now and supporting me.”

As we head into a recording room to listen to her new opus, Oumou beams and whispers “for the moment I dream that Mogoya is played simply in local clubs. The African youth need these sounds to move, to dance!”

On an almost-deserted parking lot outside of Paris, Bizot and his No Format team are speaking of Oumou when a local youth overhears and comes over. “Oumou? Are you speaking about Oumou Sangaré?” Bizot replies, “Yes, we are working on her new album.” Holding his hand gently to his heart, the youth exclaims, “but this is fantastic! Oumou Sangaré is the queen!”

This article originally appeared in Songlines #127. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit:

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Fatoumata Diawara: “my voice was my first companion”

Posted on February 27th, 2017 in Features, Recent posts by .


Fatoumata Diawara is the latest rising Malian singing star. She chats to Rose Skelton and explains about how she found her voice. Photograph by Youri Lenquette

“My life is quite strange… yes,” trails off Fatoumata Diawara, looking quizzically across the airwaves. “I’m only 29 but sometimes I feel like I’m 50. I started to speak out early, I wanted to say something, to express myself through dance. I had so much energy,” she laughs, “I think I had it from birth.”

Fatou, once a vocalist for Mali’s most famous female singer Oumou Sangaré, and the latest signing by World Circuit, and I are ‘meeting’ via webcam, each of us in our respective adoptive homes: Paris (hers) and Dakar (mine). Over a rare, unbroken and crystal clear connection, I have a live feed into her living room. From there this singer, guitarist and favoured actress of West African film-makers, reaches into a difficult life and tells me what it is that fuels her extraordinary voice and soulful music.

“I was born in Ivory Coast,” she says, of Malian parents, and explains that during the few years that she spent there as a child she didn’t sing but instead danced. “I danced all the time, everywhere, I couldn’t hold back, I danced in the street, I was always very excited.” But, she says, when she started refusing to go to school, her father sent her to live with an aunt in Bamako. “He loved me too much,” is the only thing she can say about this event that changed her whole life, her voice tinged with sadness.

It’s taken us a while to get to these facts because Fatou seems determined to talk only of positive things and I’m reluctant to darken the mood. “I don’t want to complain,” she says often, “I prefer to talk about the music because that’s the positive side of things.” But finally we get to her childhood and how it was for her to be sent so far away from her parents at such a young age. “I stopped dancing. But instead of crying, every year of my life which passed, when I couldn’t dance, I sang instead. That’s how my voice came, I needed to express myself somehow.”

Fatou has an extraordinary voice, an alluring mixture of something old and something contemporary. On ‘Alama’, an acoustic track on her debut album Fatou, her phrases are long and varied and the melody dances around, as if she’s talking, not singing. Every word has depth, warmth and expression, as if it were meant just for you. She resembles both the great Wassoulou singers of south-west Mali and, charge it up a bit, she could have stepped right off a stage in London or New York.

“Sometimes people think that I am rapping,” she says of her singing style. “It’s because I use the rhythms of my village where we sing a lot with percussion.” The base of her music is a high-energy rhythm called didadee which everyone from the Wassoulou region can understand. “It’s our musical base, and it’s very funky,” she says, explaining that Wassoulou music is built on rhythm and underpinned by a funk-driven bassline. Ethnomusicologists believe that this was one possible origin of modern American blues and this explains perhaps how Malian music has become so popular in the West.

But Fatou, despite her years in Paris and her influences of rock, reggae, funk and soul, is very much a woman of Wassoulou. “I can sing in a French style or a bit in English but the music that comes from me when I improvise, when I’m not trying to have an identity, is Wassoulou music. That’s what’s in my heart, that’s what I breathe, it’s my mother, my friend, it is everywhere in me, in my blood.”

Unknown to her father, sending Fatou to stay with her aunt in Bamako was a case of ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire.’ Her aunt was an actress and one of the few female comedians in a country where the role of women is – even today – very much at home. Through her aunt, Fatou got her first cinema role at the age of 14 and after that her screen career took off. She travelled all over Africa working in film and theatre roles, and at 18 she went to Paris to play Antigone on stage. But she still hadn’t seen her parents since the day she left Ivory Coast and this weighed heavily on her. Singing was the only thing that comforted her.

“So that I wouldn’t cry, I would sing to clean my soul. My voice was my first companion,” she says. “Even today, if I don’t have friends around me, when I sing, it feels like I’m communicating with someone next to me. The voice is always something that protected me; when I sang it sparked something positive, it told me, don’t worry, life goes on.”

Fatou’s family wanted her to marry and at the age of 20, forced her to announce she was giving up acting. When a French theatre producer offered her a role in Paris, they refused to give her the permission she needed, and so she ran away, boarding a plane to France and a new life. She spent the next few years travelling the world playing theatre roles, her voice the thing which helped pick her up when she was down. It was only fairly recently that she decided to start singing professionally.

There is one comparison that anyone who’s heard any Malian music will naturally want to make, and as we talk, it’s very hard for me not to make it too. But Fatou, graceful as ever, saves me by bringing it up herself.

“People say my voice is like Oumou’s [Sangaré] because we speak the same language when we sing, and it’s the same rhythm and tone.” Oumou and Fatou are both from the Wassoulou region but from different villages, and so while they speak the same musical language, there are subtle differences in their singing that only natives of the region can decipher. Through the Malian producer and musician Cheikh Tidiane Seck, Fatou met and worked with Oumou on Seya, her last album [a Top of the World review in #58], and toured with her for a year and a half. How was it, I wonder, for two such indomitable spirits and powerful voices to work side by side?

“Oumou knew I was a lead singer because I did a lot of (solo) concerts even when I was working with her, so she knew this was a transition period for me. But we made the most of it, even if we knew that I wouldn’t stay too long with her. We talked a lot, she told me about the path she has to follow as a woman, that it’s not easy being a woman, you have to be very strong to suffer, accept things and take certain decisions. It was a very big experience to work with her.”

Oumou Sangaré is famously one of Mali’s most successful entrepreneurs, involved in the hotel and transport business and one of Africa’s loudest voices defending women’s rights. It’s easy to see how she and Fatou get along. To become a singer in her own right, Fatou not only had to run away from her family and defy her traditions, but she had to choose to make her way entirely alone, even once she got to Paris.

“My path was different,” she says defiantly, smiling. “I am not a griotte [hereditary praise singer] but I decided to be a composer, writer, singer, arranger, do everything myself.” She got fed up with having to depend on men for her compositions; they would tell her they would write the music for her songs, but then she would become their singer. Eventually, she decided to go it alone.

“No man tells me I should do this or do that, I did not want anyone to help me.” Her guitar style is simple but honest, a basic expression of a young woman doing it for herself. Still only 29, composed, brave, determined in person and full of expression behind the microphone, it’s hard not to try and imagine what this woman will become in the future.

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Video | My Instrument: Derek Gripper

Posted on December 13th, 2016 in Recent posts by .


Derek Gripper’s visionary reconceptions of the rich traditions of West African kora music on classical guitar are second to none, and showcase his extraordinary technical ability. Libraries on Fire is one of Songlines’ Best Albums of 2016.

Read more about him and his instrument in the current issue (January/February 2017, #124), where he talks guitars with Simon Broughton on p87.

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Toumani Diabaté: a beginner’s guide

Posted on November 7th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .

Toumani Diabaté (photo by Simon Rawles)

Toumani Diabaté (photo by Simon Rawles)

The kora has become almost synonymous with the music of Mali. Nigel Williamson examines the career of its chief exponent Toumani Diabaté

Only a tiny handful of rarely gifted musicians achieve the status of becoming synonymous with the instrument they play. You cannot say the word ‘violin’ without thinking of Yehudi Menuhin. Say ‘cello’ and the name of Jacqueline du Pré instantly comes to mind. And any mention of classical guitar invariably conjures the name of Segovia. Even in death, these musicians continue to define the acme of perfection on their chosen instruments.

In world music, Astor Piazzolla and the Argentinian bandoneón and Ravi Shankar and the Indian sitar come to mind as examples of the same phenomenon. It’s about more than mere virtuosity. It’s as if these musicians have turned their instruments not only into an expression of their own personality but also, by some miraculous metaphysical transformation, into an extension of their corporeal being in which the music is mysteriously channelled through them. And among these extraordinary names we must count Toumani Diabaté, the wizard of the 21-string West African harp/lute, known as the kora.

All of these great musicians combine technical mastery with an intuitive emotional feel for the music. But perhaps above all, their music transcends the vagaries of fad and fashion. There’s an ineffable sense that they are not merely making music for their own time, but for eternity.

It’s a quality that Toumani Diabaté understands perfectly. “Many CDs are for one or two years,’’ he reasons. ‘‘I don’t want to do that in my life. I want to record something that can last for a long, long time.”

And he has every justification for that claim. Born in Bamako in 1965, his music belongs to a tradition that stretches back 700 years. Allegedly the 71st generation of kora players in his family, he was born into a caste of griots, the professional hereditary musicians with a lineage that can be traced back to the days when the Mande empire ruled West Africa. His father Sidike Diabaté was the leading player of his era and, although Toumani proudly claims to be self-taught, there’s no doubting that he learnt a huge amount by growing up in such a tradition and watching and hearing his father play on a daily basis.

‘‘His technique was putting the three functions together: bass line, melody and improvisation,’’ Toumani has said of his father. “When you listen, it’s like three men playing at the same time and I learned the kora that way.’’

Traditionally the kora was used to accompany singers but Toumani has also dramatically expanded its scope and – while remaining true to its traditions – has effectively created a new musical language for the instrument.

His ability to operate in different musical contexts echoes Shankar’s expansive approach to the sitar, which encompassed both the strictly classical and groundbreaking fusions with the likes of Menuhin and George Harrison. Similarly, Toumani can play in an intellectually austere – although still overwhelmingly beautiful – traditional Mande style. But as a bold and innovative musical visionary and fusionist, he has also shared stages and studios with the London Symphony Orchestra, Björk, Damon Albarn, the American bluesman Taj Mahal, Herbie Hancock, Spanish flamenco band, Ketama, Cuban veterans from Buena Vista Social Club and recorded with his own thoroughly modern West African big band, the Symmetric Orchestra.

His debut album, Kaira, was recorded in a single afternoon in London in 1987 when he was just 22 years old and was notable as the first instrumental album featuring only solo kora. His willingness to experiment was evident when a year later he teamed up with Ketama to record the groundbreaking kora-flamenco fusions of Songhai, a collaboration so successful that it was repeated on Songhai 2 (1994).

Back in Bamako, he gathered around him some fine traditional musicians and his second ‘solo’ album, 1995’s Djelika, was altogether different from his debut, putting the kora in the middle of a traditional Mande ensemble of balafon and the ngoni, with added Western double bass from Danny Thompson and Ketama’s Javier Colina.

In 1999 came New Ancient Strings, an album of kora duets with Ballaké Sissoko, the son of another great kora player, Djelimady Sissoko, who played and recorded with Toumani’s father. That same year saw the release of Toumani’s Grammy awardwinning collaboration with the American bluesman Taj Mahal on Kulanjan, a record which explored the common ground between the African-American blues and the musical traditions of Mali, and which Barack Obama named as a favourite during the 2008 election presidential election campaign.

Another Malian musician who explored the links between the blues and African music was the late great guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Toumani and Ali recorded two Grammy-winning albums together towards the end of Ali’s life and Toumani also went on to record with Ali’s son, Vieux Farka Touré.

Away from his own albums, you may wish to explore Toumani’s potent guest appearances on Damon Albarn’s Mali Music (Honest Jon’s, 2002), Björk’s Volta (One Little Indian, 2007) and his more central role on AfroCubism (World Circuit, 2010).

A spellbinding beauty characterises all of Toumani’s music, which makes it fine entertainment and a soothing background accessory. But it’s far more than that, too, for this is also music of extraordinary complexity and rigour that demands close attention and concentration. ‘‘When I make a record, it is like a book,’’ Toumani insists. ‘‘It’s an education about music, tradition, culture… and the world needs that.’’ 

ancient-stringsNew Ancient Strings (Hannibal, 1999) with Ballaké Sissoko

In 1970, Sidiki Diabaté and his friend Djelimady Sissoko made a landmark album of kora duets titled Ancient Strings. Nearly three decades later, producer Lucy Durán brought together their sons Toumani and Ballaké to record ‘Round Two.’




heart-of-the-moonIn the Heart of the Moon (World Circuit, 2005) with Ali Farka Touré

The meeting of Africa’s finest guitarist and the world’s greatest kora player lived up to expectations on a joyous album which married two different traditions of Malian music in an effortless, unrehearsed meeting of string magic.





boulevard-de-lindependanceBoulevard de l’Indépendance (World Circuit, 2005)

Toumani’s big band the Symmetric Orchestra played a weekly jam session at Bamako’s Hogon club for years, prior to going into the studio to record. Riotous horns, fierce percussion and the great voice of Kassé Mady Diabaté complement Diabaté’s characteristically inspired kora playing.



the-mande-variationsThe Mande Variations (World Circuit, 2008)

Toumani’s first solo and unaccompanied kora album in 20 years. Hauntingly beautiful and meditative, the graceful improvisations have a classical elegance that makes it not too fanciful to think of the album as Africa’s equivalent of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.




ali-toumaniAli & Toumani (World Circuit, 2010) with Ali Farka Touré

Recorded over three days in London in 2005, the pair arguably topped the achievement of In the Heart of the Moon. There’s still plenty of improvisation, but as Toumani says, ‘‘the sound and the idea is clearer.”





toumani-sidikiToumani & Sidiki (World Circuit, 2014)

The Diabaté kora legacy continues with this father and son collaboration. Enriched in history and diversity, this is a vivid tapestry that awakens the senses.







Enjoy our ‘Quintessential kora’ playlist on Apple Music:

This article originally appeared in Songlines #76. To find out more about subscribing to Songlines, please visit:

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