Live Reviews Music

Oumou Sangaré breaks language barriers

“I want to talk to you, but I have a problem,” Oumou Sangaré tells an adoring Village Underground crowd who greet each of her songs with jubilation. “My problem,” the Malian songstress laughs, “is English.”

But, when it comes to “The Songbird of Wassoulou”, something as trivial as language is no barrier. After all, the vast majority of people rejoicing inside this packed Shoreditch venue don’t understand a single word of the Bambara language she sings in. That’s a testament to her glorious voice, refined and finessed over almost five decades of performance. A singer from the age of five, she knows how to pack a single phrase with more emotion than most vocalists get into an entire song.

So you don’t need to know that the swaggering ‘Kamelemba’ is “about men who show off, who bring women down, about women who fall badly in love” to feel the message of empowerment she’s conveying, or that the hypnotic ‘Yere Faga’ deals with suicide to be moved by the tenderness in her delivery.

Likewise, her impassioned vocalising on the percussive ‘Minata Waraba’, which she dedicates to all mothers, channels the courage of the woman who gave her life, while the gently swaying ‘Mali Niale’ mirrors the beauty and pride of her country as she calls for Malians to return home.  

And there’s a lot more to Sangaré than that voice. Another phenomenal talent from the nation that’s already given us the likes of Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, and her late mentor Ali Farka Touré, she’s not just a talented songwriter with potent messages to share. She’s a vivacious presence, whether chatting enthusiastically to individual audience members in French or sashaying elegantly across the stage in her pristine white dress.

That presence is only amplified by the five musicians and two singers backing her. A tight unit, capable of imparting power, restraint, and most importantly joy, they excel at sudden jazz-like time changes and improvisational detours mid-song without ever losing their way into self-indulgence. Perhaps even more importantly, as individuals they share Sangare’s radiance, whether it’s kameli n’goni player Abou Diarra grooving alongside her, or vocalists Emma Lamadji and Kandy Guira dancing like nobody’s watching, all the while encouraging the uncharacteristically uninhibited London audience to do the same. This is music to move to, and be moved by.

  • This article originally appeared in RockShot Mag.

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