Oumou Sangare: ‘Polygamy is false and hypocritical’

A songbird, this is how the Malian superstar Oumou Sangare prefers to define herself. A bird that sings against the injustice that is being done to women, but also about love and eroticism in a way that no woman in Mali has ever done before. With the release of her new cd Seya, MO* spent a few days in the company of Oumou Sangare in Bamako and Segou.
On the other side of the river, the lights of Bamako, the capital of Mali where a substantial part of the residents has to do without electricity, are flickering. The broad, smooth coated Niger is as jet-black as the suddenly fallen night, and the stars nor the crescent are up against it. The crickets try to drown out the traffic on the bridge next to us and a white owl nestles in the high lighting poles which have to chase away the darkness around the Palais des Arts. The almost rural tranquility is suddenly broken by a voice seeming to come from the deep caverns of human existence, immediately supported by a combo of traditional and western instruments that create complex rhythms and a variety of melodic layers. While sitting, Oumou Sangare starts the intimate session with about thirty guests. A good two and a half hours later not only the singer and the backing vocals have freed up themselves, also some people from the audience come to add their dances -or, like the Burkinese  Bintou Dambele, their voice- to the performance.

Two days earlier Oumou Sangare was also singing along the Niger banks, some hundred kilometers downstream, in Segou. There she was top of the bill of the Festival sur le Niger. More than ten thousand fans enjoyed a set in which Sangare never asked whether the public was happy -a sickly tendency among musicians on festival stages, which also took on pandemic proportions in Segou. ‘I don’t feel the need to butter up my public’, Oumou Sangare says. ‘The people understand immediately what I’m talking about, and that’s enough to get enthusiastic reactions.’
Oumou Sangare doesn’t belong to a family of griots, the traditional caste of artists from Mali. Neither does she comes from one of the ethnic majorities of Mali, the Mandingo, Fulani or Bambara. Her roots go back to the Wassulu region in the south of the country. She does sing her texts in Bambara the way it is being spoken in Wassulu -so everybody can comprehend the words and their meaning- but stayed at the same time faithful to the musical traditions of the region from which both her parents migrated.
This, she says in a long conversation in her own hotel-restaurant, is not only a matter of nostalgia for the sounds of her childhood. ‘The Wassulu-culture is a mix of Mandingo, Fulani and Bambara. This provides more richness and complexity than in each of the three dominant cultures. This complexity has been for Wassulu-musicians for a long time a bolt on the gateway to a national or international public. That’s why I’ve used European violins for the recording of my first album, and later I have added a bass and an electric guitar.’
When asked if tradition is not abused for commercial ends this way, she replied: ’We not only need to think about maintaining the tradition -wich is quite capable of coping with the music I make- but we should also care about the youth in the city. These young people also want to dance to our own rhythms and to songs they perfectly understand. 
In Europe the music of Oumou Sangare is reduced to its dancibility -supplemented with the magical power of her voice. In Mali her success is mainly due to her lyrics. In the top-ten issues she broaches, the word woman is mentioned at least seven times. Sangare explains this constant focus by referring to the misery her mother had to go through when her father left the family and moved off with a second woman to the Ivory Coast. She was then two years old. From the age of five on, she went singing with her mother on the street or at parties to earn their living.
‘This experience has traumatized me. Yet I see the struggle for equal rights for women not as a war against men. I do think that African women must be free and independent, that’s why I also proclaim always and everywhere the need to gain an own income. When you have no income, you can never be truly free. But you should not want to be stronger or more important than your husband. A woman has to complement the man and vice versa.’

Oumou Sangare doesn’t leave it at her well-intentioned advice to others. With the money she earned with her musical career, she bought the Wassulu Hotel. It doesn’t boast multi-star-luxury but offers a cosy and efficient stay, not far from the city center. On our arrival in Bamako, the empress of West African music picked us up in person and ferried us to the Wassulu Hotel in her brand new Hummer. When I ask her later if she doesn’t find it embarrassing to drive such an expensive luxury tank in Mali -one of the poorest countries in the world, she responds: ‘It is not because Mali is poor that there’re no people who like to live in luxury. Moreover I received that car from a fan [a Nigerian governor, she gives away at another time, gg] who wanted to express, by this way, his appreciation for my music. I don’t see myself yet paying for a Hummer, but if you get it as a gift, you can’t refuse, can you?’ Her question is rhetorical. Oumou Sangare does not expect that someone else answers the questions that her life evokes.
Wassulu Hotel is but one of the companies that Oumou Sangare possesses. She is also concessionaire of GoNow, a Chinese car company that sells its SUV’s in Mali under the brand name Oum Sang. She has bought ten hectares of farmland and grows food crops on it because the food crisis has hit Mali so hard.  Sangare also put her shoulders under the television series Case Sanga, a local version of Star Academy. Each of these initiatives was taken to prove that women are able to make a difference in the development of the country, she says: ‘Women have long been invisible in our society because they were hidden behind the status of the man, who was lord and master of the family. That position gave him the possibility of coming home one day with a second or a third wife, even when his first wife didn’t agree -as my father did. But if you divide the household economy equally -one brings a bag of rice, the other one kilo of meat, one a pound of fish, the other a bunch of bananas -then the power within that family is also divided. In such a situation you can’t even imagine that the man takes decisions without consulting his wife.’
With that Oumou Sangare touches her real casus belli: polygamy. She calls it ‘fundamentally a false system and a structural hypocrisy’. Even when she is prepared -if requested- to make exception for situations where both the first wife and the new wife are asking for a polygamous marriage. For example, to be up to the work in the field and in the household. The central question is: do women have a voice in this scheme or is it a system imposed upon them which can only make them unhappy? In reality it is almost always the second option: women are obliged to share their house, their husband and their life with someone they have never chosen for.’
Oumou Sangare doesn’t mince her words when she talks about equal rights and respect for women or the devastation that polygamy causes in the lives of women. Yet, those views seemed more digestible than the eroticism in Diaraby Nene -the song from her debut album in 1990 that provided her pronto superstar status. In it Oumou describes how she longs to fondle the arm, the leg and the belly of her lover. It is not her fault, she sings, it’s because of the shivers of love. The elders of Sangare’s family were not impressed by that explanation and she had to apologize to them explicitly because she had broken so publicly the taboo on female sexuality and lust.

In Segou, Oumou Sangare didn’t put Diaraby on the playlist, but that was without taking the public into account.  Almost twenty years after the first shock, it remains a favorite, both for the older generation who grew up with it and the young Malians who, in it, hear about the things that are still not mentioned by name. Then the public gets totally wild when Oumou starts Yala, a real danceclub song in which Sangare addresses the boys and the girls in the audience to make them pay attention to all that aimlessly hanging around in the city. Girls should know that they may be in trouble if they’re wasting their time with womanizers.  And boys should know that they may be in trouble by turning to the advances of some girls.’
The message.  Wichever way we choose to approach the music of Omou Sangare, it always brings us to the text, the content, the message. This is not surprising in a culture that for centuries is dominated by griots, the masters of music and words. ‘You can hardly overestimate the role of griots in the Malian society. They are very often used to convey messages and in doing that, they are absorbing the sharpest comments. When they deliver the message or the answer, they will nevertheless take the edges off it. In this way they ensure that a rejection doesn’t feel offensive and that families, even after disagreements, still can deal with each other. Griots prevent cracks in the social web.’
The griots however are themselves a caste that defends its own position and therefore will only grudgingly accept outsiders on the artistic scene. Oumou Sangare will not confirm that there was resistance to her career, although a lot of stories about conficts between her and the griots circulate. According to her, it’s not that bad because the griots already had to cease their resistance to the arrival of, for example, Salif Keita. ‘They have recognized that someone can be born as an artist-even if you don’t come from a family of griots.’
During a late dinner in the courtyard of the Wassulu Hotel -a bit ambitiously renamed Espace Culturel Wassulu -a man and a woman, singing and orating, suddenly come up to Sangare who seems to undergo it rather acquiescently. As each person of distinction, Oumou Sangare seems to have her “own” griots who, on request ànd unsolicited, come to sing her praises. The next day, when the griot reappears, she gets a kir royal -prepared by Sangare herself. I feel how Sangare’s respect for tradition is struggling with her general aversion to ‘langue de bois’.
When asked whether she considers moving into politics, she responds firmly: ‘Never. I can never proclaim or defend the ideas of another. And in politics it’s almost never possible to speak your opinion downright, while I do that all time. Just let me sing about the things that touch me. I am already the voice of women without a voice, I don’t need a political mandate to do that.’ After which she prepares another kir royal for the whole company. ‘I am involvod in a sweet struggle’, she explains later. ‘I don’t use deadly weapons, I fight with music. I proclaim a revolution that feels soft because it is about love.’
Seya by Oumou Sangare is released by World Circuit and is available since February 23. 11 tracks, total playing time: 56 minutes.

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