Interview: Oumou Sangaré (May 2017)

The 19th May 2017 saw the release of Mogoya (check our review), Grammy award-winning Malian superstar Oumou Sangaré’s seventh album. Her tour has just passed through London with a show at Village Underground on 17th May, and Rhythm Passport was lucky enough to get this short interview with one of Africa’s most important musicians.

The last time we featured Oumou Sangaré was when her groundbreaking 1989 album Moussolou was re-released by World Circuit in 2016. Sangaré’s sound was unique in the late 1980s because the savvy businesswoman shunned the popular keyboards and drum machine sounds of the era, favouring instead traditional acoustic instruments, combined with strong lyrical content and a rich, powerful voice. This decision gave her an edge over her contemporaries – especially when it came to engaging with European audiences. Now, nearly thirty years on and in another seemingly wise move, Sangaré feels the time is right to explore the possibilities that popular production techniques offer. Teaming up with ALBERT, the Paris production collective and co-producer Ludovic Bruni, she gives her latest production a distinctly contemporary edge, aimed at drawing in younger audiences. Despite a more ‘pop’ sound, it’s a powerful album with real substance and richness, of both musical ideas and lyrical content. So where better place to start than by talking about her new album Mogoya?

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us! You have said of this latest album that your music has never had this kind of arrangement and sound before. You’ve been totally in the tradition for years, so to get out of that and have a look around elsewhere, you say, was “a total pleasure.” It sounds like you enjoyed taking your music in a new direction.

“Yes! At first, I did not necessarily intend this new direction. It came during the production of the album. I had already recorded a lot of songs when I met the Nø Førmat! label in Paris. They introduced me to the musicians, and when they interacted on the songs I immediately enjoyed their work. Their playing and feeling goes in the direction of my songs, my music – but they have a more modern sound! I thought that if I wanted my words to reach young people it was a good thing that the music was talking to them in their language. Today the youth in Bamako and elsewhere is open to sounds from all over the world, including electronic music”.  

So how did you record the album, and where?

“First we recorded in Stockholm with Andreas Unge, then in Paris with Philippe Brun where we recorded Tony Allen. We recorded the choruses [backing vocals] in Bamako, then finally all the production work in Paris with ALBERT – and the mix was done with Bertrand Fresel. It is the work of two years in all!”

Sweden, Mali, Paris – this was truly an international enterprise, and yes, you heard right! Guesting on Mogoya is also veteran Nigerian Afrobeat rhythm supremo Tony Allen, formerly of Fela Kuti’s groundbreaking group Africa 70. Tell us a bit more about working with the man who put the ‘beat’ into Afrobeat’!

“The sessions with Tony Allen were my favourite moments. He’s my brother – I love him so much! I do not know if the Afrobeat element will attract more people, but I find his contribution very natural. When I composed ‘Yere Faga‘ I immediately thought of him, and when he came to the studio it happened all by itself. It was such a fluid process. He and I understand each other”.

“Yere Faga” is the single from the album that came out in February featuring Tony Allen, and it ripples along with that relentless groove that was defined by the Afrobeat master himself. The album retains the wonderfully twangy kamale ngoni and other traditional instruments, but what else is different about the production on this album from the previous ones?

“Well, we tried to keep intact the spirit and the groove of the Wassoulou music, but we also introduced new sounds – keyboards, drums and production ideas, which are the little secrets of ALBERT [the production team]! I hope in any case to send out messages that people can relate to. Life is difficult today. The world is troubled. My role is to bring them a little joy, and especially the strength to build peace. I sing to give them strength and courage”. 

So do you think it is important for mature artists to have a strong influence on the younger generation?

“But it’s our role as artists! I have always sung for the youth of my country, especially for women. It is thus in Mali. Traditionally griots and artists- even non-griots – have always had this social role, even if it has been lost a little today”.

One of your favourite topics is to do with people wanting to leave their homes in Mali for a ‘better’ life elsewhere, but you say that people should not leave their homes in Africa to migrate to Europe? 

“But of course it’s a very important message! In Africa, we have everything we need to succeed. We have natural resources, ingenuity. This is what I say in the track ‘Mali Niale’. Our country is beautiful! We must build it all together. Of course, it is sometimes good to travel to gain experience, but we must return. Especially, do not believe that the grass is greener elsewhere!”

Some of the other topics of your lyrics are very serious, such as suicide prevention, the dangers of womanisers and problems arising from malicious gossip. Are you speaking from personal experience? 

“Haha! What woman hasn’t met a ‘player’? Of course, there is always my personal experience at the base of my songs. That’s what inspires me. In ‘Yere Faga’, for instance, I talk about the trials I went through when I started gaining popularity. Many people gossiped about me. No doubt it is cathartic to sing of my experiences. In any case, I need music to live. Without music I am nothing. But then I do not sing to tell only of my life! I try to get more universal messages across”. 

Sangaré is a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, but she is also a businesswoman with three businesses in Mali – a range of SUVs called ‘Oum-Sang’, a hotel in Bamako and ‘Oumou Sangaré Rice’ grown in her own fields. She says songwriting is not the only way of dealing with problems in her life, and she has a strong message for women everywhere.

“I only believe in hard work and courage. To get through the problems you have to roll up your sleeves. My mother has always set me a good example. She never gives up. She is eighty-five years old and still works in the fields!”

Time is running out, so for one last question, we asked Oumou Sangaré if she has any tips for singers. She must have some special exercise routines to warm up and maintain those richly distinctive vocal chords, but, surprisingly…

“I don’t do any special exercises! When I have a sore throat, I just take honey or ginger”.

And with these aromatic scents in the air we take our leave of one of Africa’s current greats as she continues her tour, celebrating this new dimension to her music and bringing it to the world. Once a pioneer, always a pioneer!