Malian diva stays true to her own message

Boston Globe, July 24, 2011

There came a point, says Oumou Sangare, the great singer from Mali, when she had to finally take her own advice.

A world music phenomenon since 1990, when she released her acclaimed debut album “Moussolou” at 22, Sangare had spent a decade and a half – or longer, if you include her adolescence as a street and wedding singer – making music with messages of celebration and empowerment for the women of Mali, Africa, and the world.

By 2005, she was an established star with four albums of rootsy pop based on the traditional music of her Wassoulou region. Her message was consistent: songs addressed bride price, polygamy, the stigma of childlessness, and other social issues. Audiences abroad might not understand the lyrics but related to her voice, presence, and story. At home in Mali, she received adulation.

These were great accomplishments, especially for a woman who didn’t finish school and helped support her mother and six siblings from a young age when her father took another wife and left town.

“Women should lead by example, by doing the work,” she says. “It’s by working hard that you earn respect. If you are not able to be self-sufficient, how do you want people to listen to you? I thought, after 20 years of career talking about these things, it was time to take concrete action.”

With this, Sangare – speaking in French from Mali’s capital, Bamako, her abundant charisma easily coming through despite the scratchy line – goes into businesswoman mode. She describes how, already the owner of a small hotel in Bamako, she got into a far bigger business importing a personalized brand of cars (Oum Sang) made in China.

“I was in Paris and I saw a newspaper story about Chinese automobiles invading the world, and I saw the prices,” she says. These brand-new cars were cheaper than the secondhand vehicles from Europe, many five or 10 years old, that prevailed on West African markets. “And I said to myself, look at that, there’s probably a little something that you can do here.”

The business launched in 2006. Today, Sangare not only imports cars but is helping to renew Bamako’s decrepit taxi fleet, along with her ventures in farming and running a hotel. “In Mali I am the first artist ever to go into business like this,” she says. “And that exhausted me at first, but I wanted to show artists that we are human beings who can initiate things in our country.”

Sangare says these activities kept her from making music until the glorious “Seya” (2009), which featured her first new recordings in about seven years. “But I never left music,” she says. “I was just playing nearby in Africa, where trips didn’t take long, not big long tours where you are cut off from your life. But my real life has always been music. Everything I have in life, music gave it to me.”

“Seya” is Sangare’s fullest-sounding album, enriched by production from master arranger Cheikh Tidiane Seck and cameos by nearly 50 top Malian and foreign musicians, including funk figures Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis, drummer Will Calhoun, and Afrobeat legend Tony Allen.

The album put Sangare in the most assured balance of her career between Wassoulou folk sounds and Afropop accessibility. Breaking from the message-driven titles of her previous albums, Sangare considers it her best work, and also her happiest. (“Seya” means “joy.”)

” `Seya’ is really me, but evolved as a human being,” she says. “It’s Wassoulou and it’s Mali, but the Mali of now, the result of 20 years of career and encounters.” She offers an analogy: “I try to stay myself, but modern, like the Japanese. They manage to be extremely modern but at the same time remain very Japanese.”

“Oumou Sangare’s artistry has only become richer and more extraordinary,” says David Bither, the executive at Nonesuch Records who made the deal to distribute her music in the US. “It was all because we loved Oumou Sangare.”

As for Sangare, in making “Seya” and returning to the tour circuit in the last two years – she plays the Paradise on Monday – she says she also has given voice to a kind of restored personal peace. Her father died six years ago; in his final years, she had come to know him again, finally exorcising, at least in part, her childhood trauma.

“I had been so angry,” she says. “When you are a child and your parent leaves you so young, it hurts so much. I discovered late in his life that he was not a bad person. When I finally got to know him, it really brought back my pleasure in life. So Oumou Sangare was no longer aggressive, no longer the woman who was so angry at men. It changed me so much!” She laughs. “Anyway, it calmed me a lot.”

Her mental burdens may have lightened, but touring again, plus her businesses, means Sangare is busier now than ever. And there are those in Mali with even grander ideas of what her next move might be.

“Even just recently, at the airport, people were coming up to me and saying, `Oumou, you need to run for president.’ I told them, `I’m good where I am, right here next to you. Imagine if I was president, I wouldn’t be able to denounce certain things and say all I want to say.’ “

Then she pauses and hedges just that little bit, like a masterful politician. “It’s not that it’s absolutely impossible,” she says. “But what I have now is more than enough.”