Moussoulou Power

Griot grrrl: Oumou Sangare

Griot grrrl: Oumou Sangare

I know my lexicology well enough to guess that Rokia Traore's "Mancipera" might hint at some sort of liberation. But damned if I would have guessed that the lead line of the Malian singer's lyric would translate as "'A free relationship is preferable to marriage,' the girl declares." Nor would I have suspected that her adversary in this dialogue, a "wise man" who initially contends that such a relationship is more "fragile" than the traditional protections of wedlock, would be convinced by the girl's argument: that women should date extensively and adventurously before marriage. This debate occurs more gracefully in the language of Traore's Bamanan original, I imagine. But not, I doubt, any more directly.

All that info, mind you, I gleaned from the notes to Wanika (Indigo), Traore's recently released second album (my own Bamanan is a little rusty). Yet an insistent self-possession can be heard in the young woman's voice, which combines the footloose independence of a woman raised by a diplomat father in North Africa and Europe with the desire for structure of an exile who pines for a cultural tradition she missed out on. This tradition reaches back before the burst of Sixties pop that arose alongside Malian independence. According to Malian immigrant Chérif Keita, a professor of Francophone literature at Carleton College in Northfield (and a cousin to Malian music giant Salif Keita), this tradition found its first popular modern voice in the music of Sixties star Tata Bambo Kouyaté. "She had a song about a woman's right to choose her partner that became so popular that its chorus, 'Bambo,' became her middle name," he says. But Keita insists that this cultural vein can be traced to housewives' songs, stories sung to children, and other domestic women's arts.

Such forwardness is something I've come to expect from Malian music since first hearing the voice of that nation's premier female star, Oumou Sangare. Since hearing Sangare's voice, I said, not since reading her lyric sheet. A lot of the ink spilled over the now-30-year-old Sangare since her first U.S. bow in 1991 has concentrated on the feminist impulses revealed in her lyrics. Yet the issues of dowry and polygamy at the core of her protests don't really resonate hereabouts (except, perhaps, in Utah), and I'm sure few of her American fans speak even rudimentary Banbara. The fact is that Sangare's emotions translate even when her lyrics don't, and that's perhaps no more evident than on 1994's Ko Sira, currently in rerelease from Elektra Nonesuch.

Ko Sira, which translates as "Marriage Today," sounded like a career stopgap in 1994, made while Sangare adjusted to her newfound stardom. Her debut, Moussoulou, was made more startling by the simple fact that it came first, and Ko Sira wasn't as musically innovative as 1997's Worotan would be. (That album enlisted the aid of JB alum Pee Wee Ellis to arrange some wild horn charts.) The sound on Ko Sira is familiar--elegant, rhythmic plucking on the kamalengoni (the popwise descendent of the hunter's harp), gentle percussion on the calabash, and Sangare's elegant, extended lines of declamation up top.

But the breakthrough on Ko Sira is Sangare's use of harmony, hinted at on Moussoulou but fleshed out here. The backup women who float the melody sound more girlish than Sangare, consolidating her admonitory, maternal role. But when those voices join together in unison, she sounds at once sisterly and authoritative, conversational and hortatory. Taking the time to enjoy the cultural tradition she has reestablished before progressing onward, Sangare allows us to hear individual expression embedded in a communal context--a utopian ideal that's maybe only possible in art.

In the three years that Sangare has kept mum since Worotan, West Africa has gone to the folkies--and, for once, I'm not using that phrase in a derogatory sense. When your nation reaches a certain level of capitalist development, after all, young people are bound to idealize the lost ways. Especially when their home market is flooded with subpar cassettes featuring the dinkiest and most robotic in drum machinery. The jali, the traditional musician class who survive by singing the praises of wealthy benefactors, have flooded the market with these relatively inexpensive but also relatively indistinguishable products, combining the most rote usage of modern technology with the most clichéd song-stories of yore. Responding to this scene, young musicians like Rokia Traore rebel by returning to older instrumentation while updating lyrical concerns.

This Malian impulse to use the past to argue against its supposed guardians is a tradition itself: Sangare cites Islamic law in her lyrics to argue against the supposed "tradition" of polygamy. But the cultural history that Traore invokes is a lovely, patchwork invention drawn from various sources. Wanika employs a range of instrumentation taken from throughout Mali: not just the ubiquitous kamalangoni, but the lutelike n'gomi (more commonly associated with the jali) and a larger balafon (or xylophone) than that found in most Malian regions. Though Traore opens with a song expressing gratitude, to her kin as well as to those artists who inspired her and patrons who befriended her, this is a woman who knows the old ways aren't always best.

Traore luxuriates in sound, in the variety of instrumentation and melody available to her. You could even say she exoticizes herself, reveling in how otherworldly she sounds. This peculiarly Western aesthetic shows up in the vocal harmonies, which are both more taut and more delicate than those Sangare employs. When I checked the liner notes to try to give credit where it's due, I found that, aside from one Coco Mbassi, who lends backing vocals to half the tracks, Traore generally harmonizes with herself--not a traditionalist move, nor, one might protest, a particularly sisterly act.

"More and more we live in a world ruled by individualism," Sangare once lamented on Worotan's "Djôrôlen," an odd plaint, perhaps, for a star who is so clearly her own woman. Indeed, the dialectics of progress are convoluted and unfair--as women gain an individual voice in Malian music, they stand in danger of losing their communal voice. The individualism that makes traditional Malian feminism possible also imperils the sisterhood that sustains it. That's the tension that motivates Traore's Wanika, even at its most gentle.