Album Review: Oumou Sangaré – Timbuktu [World Circuit; April 2022]

Oumou Sangaré is back on the World Circuit and we are here for it. 

After a hiatus from the British label during which she recorded Mogoya and Acoustic on the French label Nø Førmat! Mali’s Oumou Sangaré returns with Timbuktu, a luminous collection of eleven songs recorded between Bamako and Baltimore (more on why later) with additional stopovers in Paris and Ouagadougou.

Oumou’s been busy of course – as a business woman she’s founder and head of several companies involved in hospitality, agriculture and car retail through her brand Oum Sang, whilst as a humanitarian she has received the rank of Commander of the National Order of Mali, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres de la Republique Française and served as a UN GoodWill Ambassador on food and agriculture. Nonetheless (and lucky us) Oumou has found time to record this new album, the title of which pays homage to the totemic city of Tombouctou/Timbuktu.

It’s a long way from Timbuktu to Baltimore so before we get into it, a quick recap on Oumou’s rise and rise so far. 

Born in Bamako in 1968, Oumou began singing with her mother Aminata Diakité who she would follow to the soumous (wedding or baptism parties held under canopy in the streets of Bamako ) where Aminata (a single mother after Oumou’s father abandoned the family) sung to support her family.

Though the family lived in Bamako, their ancestral home was the forested Wassulu region of South West Mali and it was the songs, musical instruments and culture of Wassulu that Oumou would channel (along with her first hand experience of a family fractured by polygamy) on her feminist first album and manifesto Moussolou (Women) recorded in Abidjan and released on cassette in 1989 when she was just 18.

Signing to World Circuit, Oumou expanded upon the themes of Moussolou with Ko Sira in 1993, Worotan in 1996 and Seya in 2009 on which she centred the talismanic musical instrument of Wassulu – the Kamelé n’goni harp, on songs critiquing patriarchal practices such as polygamy, FGM and child marriage, whilst also celebrating and honouring everything that is excellent in Mali and West Africa.

Fast forward to 2020 and Oumou has just wrapped up the latest edition of her annual Wassulu culture festival (est. 2016) and is in the United States for what was intended to be just a few weeks, when a global pandemic was declared and she found herself locked down in Baltimore. 

Fortunately, ‘The songbird of Wassoulou’ as she is known in Mali, had the company of her faithful Kamelé n’goni player Mamadou Sidibé and this period of enforced seclusion gave birth to Timbuktu.

Produced with Nicolas Quéré and Pascal Danaë, who contributes dobro and slide guitars on the album, Timbuktu opens with ‘Wassulu Don’ a bluesy blend of fuzz guitar and n’goni over which Oumou sings a triumphant call and response with backing vocalist Emma Lamadji exalting the development of Wassulu, which she celebrates as a beacon of peace in a Mali troubled in recent years by coups.

Switching to reflective mood for ‘Sira’, Oumou then sings proverbs and riddles over a blissful n’goni melody by Sidibé, answered by the glissando of Pascal Danaë’s slide guitar as she explains, “The caiman can beget a lizard, the sheep can beget a rabbit, the cow can beget a goat… life is not always logical!”

As ever Oumou shows up for the downtrodden in society, and on ‘Gniani Sara’ she lets the women of Mali know that she sees their labour, sacrifices and everyday heroism on a track on which Baptiste Brondy’s drum part is a nod to the late Tony Allen’s touch on Oumou’s last World Circuit production Seya.

The elegic title track ‘Timbuktu’ is the halfway point of the album for which Oumou urgently deploys all the gravitas of her voice to remind us of the greatness of Mali’s desert centre of learning and culture. “I came to tell the Malian people, and the entire world, that the holy city of Timbuktu is a city of science and knowledge. Where is our reputation as a country of peace, knowledge, togetherness and cordiality?” she sings over a brooding blues.

Reflecting on the lyricism on the album, Oumou says in the press release that accompanies the album: “Since 1990, I’ve never had a chance to cut myself off from the world and devote myself exclusively to music. Lockdown was an opportunity for me, because it allowed me to keep my focus on the work of composition,” and on Timbuktu the impression is that Oumou is totally present in the music.

The production helps too.

Wherein Mogoya (Oumou’s last album of new material) matched Oumou with a rock combo of accomplished session musicians, on Timbuktu the songs are allowed to breathe, and the World Circuit production honours folkloric instruments such as on ‘Sarama’, featuring Oumou’s long term djembe fola, Adama Diarra, who adds flourishes and sauce as Oumou counsels, “Don’t be jealous of Oumou Sangaré, she hasn’t done anything wrong to you.”

Indeed, being a successful woman in an age of digital scrutiny and gossip is a recurring theme as on ‘Dily Oumou’ on which Oumou has a firm talk with herself saying: “Oumou do not pay attention to gossip, keep on moving forward. I‘ve heard what ill-intentioned people are saying in the corridors, but I don’t listen.” 

And as we know to expect with Oumou, the tune here might sound like a lullaby, but the subject is anything but light. 

To return to the production, the choice of dobro (steel bodied guitar) slide guitar, and even banjo are nice touches and a reunion of sorts as these Atlantic instruments find their ancestors in West Africa. The violin played by David Coltun on ‘Demissimw’ is also sympathetically played, dueting with Oumou who pleads, “Never forget that today’s children are tomorrow’s adults, there is no future without them.”

The album concludes with ‘Sabou Dogoné’ a traditional song from Wassulu and an enigmatic ending befitting of the titular Timbuktu.

An almost perfect record (it would obviously be preferable if Oumou didn’t still have to address some of the subjects on the album) Timbuktu is a triumph and may just be the arrival of album of the year.


Timbuktu, Oumou Sangaré's 9th album is out now via World Circuit. 
You can buy your copy and find more info following this LINK