Since the release of her debut album Moussoulou in 1989, there’s been no respite for the Malian singer Oumou Sangare. Notable waymarks on her rich and fruitful journey include some of the most definitive recordings in the history of contemporary African music, all released on the World Circuit label: Ko Sira in 1993, Worotan in 1996 and Seya in 2009, the latter nominated for a Grammy in the Best World Music Album category. Numerous international tours and performances on prestigious stages such as the Sydney Opera House, London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan complete this roll of honour.
Timbuktu, the first release on her own Oumsang label, is the latest act in this unparalleled musical epic, one that World Circuit has become associated with once again. It consecrates this artist who rose up from the poor neighbourhoods of Bamako to become a global superstar and universally admired feminist icon. With the powerful aura of a Grace Jones, black transgressive icon par excellence, Oumou has long since broken through the barriers that separate continents and musical styles. She was once invited by Alicia Keys to sing a duet on TV, and today, she gets held up as an example by artists as hefty as Aya Nakamura, who dedicated the song ‘Oumou Sangare’ to her in 2017, or Beyoncé, who sampled one of Oumou’s most famous creations, ‘Diaraby Néné’, for her song ‘Mood 4 Eva’, which was included in the soundtrack of the film The Lion King: The Gift in 2019.
Oumou Sangare’s career was being driven forward at a rapid pace and without even the slightest pause when it hit a major interruption thanks to the health crisis of 2020. In March of that year, just after the International Wassoulou Festival (FIWA), an event Oumou launched in 2016 to promote her birth region in southern Mali, she went to the United States. She’d only planned to stay a few weeks but then lockdown came, first in New York, then in Baltimore, a place where she quickly felt at home. “Something in that city drew me in straightaway. I felt so good there that I wanted to buy a house.” Once settled into her new abode, she spent her days writing songs with the help of an old friend, Mamadou Sidibé, who has been Oumou Sangare’s kamele n’goni (traditional lute) player since the very beginning.
This period of enforced seclusion gave birth to ten of the eleven songs on Timbuktu. The album weaves intimate sonic connections between traditional instruments from West Africa and those linked to the history of the blues, most notably the kamele n’goni and its distant heirs, the Dobro and slide guitar, played here by Pascal Danaë, who co-produced the album with Nicolas Quéré. From that particular period of lockdown, when time itself was put on hold, so to speak, and when both Oumou the artist and Oumou the businesswoman suddenly experienced a hitherto unknown state of isolation, far from the tumult and incessant solicitations of normal life, she pulled out the best.
“Since 1990, I’ve never had a chance to cut myself off from the world and devote myself exclusively to music,” she says. “If you look at it that way, lockdown was an opportunity for me, because it allowed me to keep my focus on the work of composition. I think you feel it in music, but also in the lyrics which are fruit of all those moments when I was able to withdraw into myself and meditate.”
It’s true. Never have Oumou Sangare’s lyrics achieved such a poetic quality, such depth. Never have we seen her so inspired to deliver up her thoughts on the indecipherable mysteries of existence, the perilous situation that her country is going through right now or the general condition of the African womanhood, all proof that despite becoming so powerful, she hasn’t renounced the belief and commitment of her youth. So many feelings and moods nourish this album, from the introspection of ‘Degui N’Kelena’ to the amorous languor of ‘Kanou’, the compassion of ‘Demissimw’, the exasperation of ‘Kêlê Magni’ or the pride of ‘Wassulu Don’. Taking a conclusive step forward with the sonic approach devised by Danaë and Quéré, which adapts the dynamism of traditional Wassoulou rhythms to the language of contemporary music, Timbuktu looks set to become the most ambitious and accomplished work in an already eminent discography.