Oumou Sangare: "Polygamy is wrong and hypocritical"

A songbird, that is how the Malinese superstar prefers to describe herself. A bird that sings against the injustice done to women, but also about love and erotism in a way that no woman in Mali has ever done. Her new CD brought MO* to Bamako and to Segou in the company of Oumou Sangare.
On the opposite bank of the river, the lights of Bamako, capital of Mali, shine. Meanwhile the majority of Bamako’s inhabitants must do without electricity.  The wide, calm Niger is as black as te suddenly fallen night, and neither the stars or the half moon can make up for that.  The crickets are trying to dominate the circulation on the nearby bridge and a white owl is nestling in the high pylons of illumination, that must eliminate the darkness round the “Palais des Arts”.  The nearly rural rest is suddenly broken by a voice, that appears to come from the deapest caverns of the human being and is then accompanied by a combo of traditional and European instruments, that create complex rhythms and a multitude of melodious layers.  While seated, Oumou Sangare begins the intimate  with about thirty invited people.  After a bit more than two and a half hour not only the singer and the backing vocals have raised from their chairs, from the public too people come trying their dancing steps or , like the Burkinian Bintou Dambele, add their voice to the singing group.
Two days earlier Oumou Sangare had been singing near the Niger in Segou,  one hundred kilometers nearer to the sea.  There she was top of the bill of the “Festival sur le Niger”.
More than ten thousand fans enjoyed the music, but Sangare did not ask a single time whether they liked it- a sickly habit amongst the artists on festivals, also in Segou-.
“I do not feel like making love to the public” says Oumou Sangare “ people understand what I am singing about, that is why they are enthusiast”.
Oumou Sangare is not a “griot” the traditional artists in Mali. Neither does she belong to the majority ethnics, the Mandingo, Fulani or Bambara.  Her roots are in the Wassulu region, in the southern part of the country. Her texts are in Bamabara, which is spoken in Wassulu- everyone can understand this language- but she remained faithful to the musical traditions of this region, wherefrom both her parents emigrated.  This she said in a long dialogue in her own hotel-restaurant, is not but nostalgia to the sounds of her youth. “The Wassulu culture is a mixture of Mandingo, Fulani and Bambara; it is therefore richer and more complex than each of the three dominant cultures.” This complexity has been for a long time a bar for the Wassulu-musicians to a national or international public.  Therefore I have utilized European violins to my first record, and later I added a bass-guitar and an electrical guitar.”       
Asking her whether she did not mix commercial music with the traditional music, she replied: “ we  must not only think of keeping the tradition – I am convinced that tradition can stand to what I am doing-  we must also think of the youth in the cities. They want to dance on our own rhythms and on songs that they perfectly understand”
In Europe the music of Oumou Sangare is reduced to her ability to dance on, completed with the magical force of her voice.  In Mali her success is mainly due to her texts.  In the top-teen of themes that she utilizes, there is at least seven times the word “woman”.  This continuous theme  Sangare declares  to be due to the sorrow and  poverty that her mother encountered when her husband left her and remarried with a second wife and departed with this woman to Ivory Coast. Oumou was then two years old. When she was five years old, she went with her mother on the street or on festivities to sing to earn some money.  “This experience has traumatized me.  I do not see, however, equal rights for women as a struggle against men. I think that African women must be free and autonomous, therefore I always declare that they should earn some money.  Any who has no income, cannot be really free. You need not be stronger or more important than your husband. A wife must complete her husband and vice-versa”.  With money earned from her concerts she bought the hotel Wassulu: not a multi-stars hotel –but efficient homefullness.  When I arrived in Bamako, the empress of the West-African song drove me herself from the airport to Hotel Wassulu in her new Hummer. When I later asked her whether she did not find it ennuyé to drive such a luxury car in Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, she replied:” It is nor because Mali is poor, that there are no people who like luxury. Furthermore I received this car from a fan [a Nigerian governor, she told me at another moment] who wanted to express his appreciation for my music. I cannot see to pay myself for such a Hummer, but if one receives it as a present, one cannot refuse it? Can you? Her question is rhetoric . Oumou Sangare does not expect that someone else would answer the questions that concern her life.
Hotel Wassulu is but one of the companies that Oumou Sangare owns. She is also national agent for GoNow, a Chinese car that sells its 4x4’s in Mali under the name “Oum Sang. She bought ten hectares of agrarian land and has feeding grasses grown there, because the feeding crisis has struck so heavily.  Sangare also started the television series Case Sanga, a local version of Star Academy “Each time to show that women are able to make a difference  in the development of the country” she says “Women have remained invisible for a long time, because they were hidden behind the status of the husband, who was the master at home.  This position allowed him to come home with a second or third wife, even if the first woman did not agree-  as my father did. If one however parts the home economy- one brings a bag of rice, the other a kilo of meat, one a pound of fish, the other a pack of bananas- then the force within this family is better spread. In such a situation one cannot imagine that the husband would decide something without consulting his wife”
Herewith Oumou Sangare gets at her battling point: polygamy. She calls it a wrong system and structural hypocrisy.  She is prepared –at our request -  to make an exception for the situation where as well the first as the second wife would ask for a polygamous wedding e.g. one would work in the fields and the other would do the household. The central question is: do women have a voice in this arrangement or is this system being forced upon them, whereby they can only become unhappy?  Generally it is the second option: women are forced to share their house, their husband and their life with a woman that they did not choose.
Oumou Sangare is very frank when talking about equal rights and respect for women or about the destructions caused by polygamy in the lives of women. This opinion is better accepted in the conservative Mali than the erotism in Diaraby Nene –the item in her starting album in 1990, which delivered her a superstar status. Herein Oumou describes how she wishes to caress the arm, leg and belly of her beloved. It is not her fault, she sings, it is because of the trills of love.  The older people in Sangare’s family were not amused and did not accept her explanations. She had to excuse herself because she has openly broken the taboo on feminine sexuality and lust.
In Segou Oumou Sangare did not put Diaraby Nene on her list of songs, but she did not count on the public. Nearly twenty years after the first shock it remains a favorite, as well with the older fans, who have been growing with this song as with the young Malinese who hear singing about things that are not being talked about.  The public gets entirely wild when Yala is being started, a real discothèque number where Sangare sings in turn to boys and then to girls in the public to take care when hanging around in town “girls must know that they can get problems when talking to chasers of skirts. And boys must know they can get problems when following advances of some girls”.
The message. Whatever side we near the music of Oumou Sangare, we always get the text,the message. This is not surprising in a culture that is being dominated since centuries by griots, masters of music and word. “one can hardly take too much value in the role of the  griots in the Malinese society. They are used to convey messages and they will cut off the sharp edges.  They will see that a rejection will not feel insulting and that families, even after discussions, will remain united. Griots avoid shreds in the social tissues”.  The Griots are a caste that protects its own role and therefore do not like other people to take their role. Oumou Sangare will not confirm that there was resistance against her singing, although there are quite some stories about it. She says that there was not much resistance, because the griots had to stop their resistance against another artist, Salif Keita. They have noticed that one can be born as an artist, even if they are not a griot.
During a late evening meal in the inner open space of Hotel Wassulu, a bit ambitiously called
“Espace Culturel Wassulu, suddenly a man and woman arrive singing and talking to Oumou Sangare, who lets it be.   As any important person Oumou Sangare has her “own” griots, who arrive, whether called or not, to sing her praise. The Griotte receives the next day, when she reappears a kir royal, prepared by Sangare self. I feel how the respect of traditions of Sangare wrestles with her repugnance against  langue de bois. Asking whether she will become a politician, she resolutely says never.” I cannot possibly defend or declare someone elses ideas. In politics it is hardly possible to say one’s own idea, whereas I do so all the time
Just let me sing about things that touch me. Already I am the voice of women who are not being heard. I do not need a political mandate”. Where after she prepares a kir royal for the whole company. With bruising wine from the Alsace and too much blackberry juice “I am leading a sweet struggle” she later says “I do not struggle with deadly weapons but with music. I preach a revolution, that feels soft, because it is about love.”
SEYA by Oumou Sangare was edited by World Circuit, and canbe bought as from 23 februari 11 tracks total time 56 minutes
“Who has no income, can never be really free” 

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