Unsurprisingly, even a global pandemic could not keep Oumou Sangaré from expressing her musical heart and soul. Visiting the U.S. in 2020 from Mali, Sangaré got caught in the covid-19 lockdown and decided to stay put in Baltimore, where she bought a house, and started to write and record songs for her latest album. From across the Atlantic, Sangaré sings words of praise and caution to folks back home in Mali, particularly its women.
But Sangaré has been rising above setbacks for most of her life. To help her single mother – abandoned by her father – to make ends meet she sang in the street to raise cash at the age of five. Sangaré went on to win a pre-kindergarten singing competition, embarked on a career that saw her touring the world, and now is an iconic performer and successful businesswoman who owns hotels, businesses and a car company in Mali.
For Timbuktu, Sangaré teams again with Mamadou Sidibé, an old friend and her accompanist on the kamele n’goni African lute. But on this new album, she has an inspired partnership with Pascal Danaë, a Paris-based guitarist and leader of the band Delgres, where he unites his Guadalupe roots and gritty electric blues. Danaë fits perfectly into the Malian electric-acoustic hybrid blues sound, contrasting nicely against the dry twang of the n’goni.
Sangaré’s voice is a celebratory delight – silk and smoke, honey with a bit of grit, powerful and lithe. Sangaré surrounds herself with a relentless hypnotic groove, her voice urging on the groove, soaring above it and pushing it along like an instrumental soloist in a tight jazz combo. Accompanied by billowing chorus of vocals and traditional African instrumentation, Sangaré creates a sound that sounds ancient but lives comfortably in today’s electrified world. An inventive vocalist, her vocal lines are more often like a jazz soloist than a chorus and verse singer – no ear worms or sing-alongs here. She serves up a breakneck flow of syllables, stopping to emphasize an urgent syllable or to add a ululating flourish – all flowing effortlessly but rich with intense feeling.
Sangaré and company set the tone from the outset. “Wassalou Don” starts with Danaë’s chewy, hard-swinging electric blues joined by hand claps, a powerfully tightly synchronized band and Sangaré slip-sliding and soaring across the rhythms, urged on by a sweet-voiced chorus. Despite Sangaré’s traditional-style singing, the song is a full-on rocker – it’s not hard to imagine hundreds of jam-band concert-goers dancing and clapping along. Like a travel commercial for her Wassalou homeland, Sangaré sings of the region’s development. “Let’s go to Wassulou, where hospitality, sweet life and great events are blossoming in the local daily life./Come with me to Wassulou, where joy is everywhere!”
The next song, “Sira,” rushes by, a swift mix of the racing vocals of Sangaré and her choral singers, hurried along by a light but insistent snare drum rhythm and hypnotic n’goni pattern pushing against a pulsating electronic wall of sound. In a parable of sorts, she sings that children are not always like their parents: “The caiman can beget a lizard, the sheep can beget a rabbit, the cow can beget a goat… life is not always logical/The baobab’s trunk is smooth, but its fruits are rough.”
On the third song, “Degui N’Kelena,” she slows down with a deliberate, repetitive introspective arpeggio n’goni setting the tone and a dobro sliding in lovely daubs of color and a faint flute in the aural distance. With this beautiful backdrop, Sangaré cautions listeners: “Learn to rely on yourself, so life won’t surprise you./Learn to live alone, because no one can tell what tomorrow will bring.”
In the poignant title song, Sangaré sings of the ancient city of Timbuktu, and then sings: “Malian people, let’s wake up from this deep sleep! Do not forget how great we were!”
On “Gniani Sara,” Sangaré sings words of heartfelt encouragement to mothers, telling them: “One day, insults and bullying will be but a bad memory. Keep on fighting and sacrificing yourself for others: God will reward yourefforts.” Underneath the mid-tempo soundscape and playing off Sangaré’s complex rhythmic lines, drummer Baptiste Brondy beats out a quiet, precise, intricate pattern that gives the song its restrained urgent power.
The anti-war “Kele Magni” starts off with a rattling balafon establishing a fast-moving rhythmic foundation with the n’goni, eventually leading to Danaë’s passionate, fuzz-toned guitar. Leading the insistent polyrhythms, Sangaré sings: “Hey African people, War is not a solution!/War is not a good thing, my poor Malian people. If we are not able to make peace, the whole world will laugh at us.”
Sangaré closes the album with the ethereal “Sabou Dogone,” an ancestral song about Mali’s legendary “hidden knowledge.” The synth-generated sound gives an otherworldly background for the call-and-response of Sangaré’s doleful evocations and the softer, ethereal choral vocals. Hanging in this electronic firmament are spare streaks of light from Nicholas Quéré’s keyboard.
With this strong album, her first in five years, Sangaré once again proves that she is a voice to be listened to, even if you don’t speak a word of Bambara.