Oumou Sangaré will admit to a moment of fear in a lifetime of combat. Once, when she was five and her primary school had won a singing contest, she was asked to make her debut performance in front of thousands of people. The teachers placed a table on stage so she could reach the microphone. The crowds gathered.
But Sangaré, gripped by stage-fright, ran away and was only coaxed back by her mother’s gentle encouragement. “She told me, ‘Just imagine we’re singing in the kitchen. Close your eyes and you won’t see anyone,’” she remembers. “So I got up and closed my eyes and started singing. It was my very first concert. And it was the last for a very long time.”
The features that marked that initial foray into music – talent, bravery and inspirational female solidarity – have gone on to define Sangaré’s career ever since, even if life was soon to thicken her skin to the point where she says feeling frightened was no longer an option.
In the two decades since she strode majestically onto the Malian music scene, she has become more than just a best-selling singer and critically acclaimed artist; she is a mouthpiece for the women of Africa. “I wanted to face up to the things which had traumatised me,” she says, speaking with quiet dignity of a childhood “stolen” by a father who left to take another wife when she was two, and by a poverty so debilitating she was forced to sing to keep her and her siblings from the streets. “What did this to me? Female suffering, polygamy, social injustice. I didn’t want other children to suffer the way I did so I thought that if I could help with my lyrics I would.”
Sangaré, who sings mainly in Bambara (one of several national languages) released her first album in 1990, justbefore Mali ended military dictatorship. Although it was the work of a new, 21-year-old artist, there was nothing meek or mild about Moussolou (Women). The songs, although composed in the traditional wassoulou style, were unlike anything heard before in Bamako: they encouraged girls to resist oppression, to rise up against forced marriages and polygamy, and to forge their own careers in order to achieve independence. One song, Diaraby Nene (The Shivers of Passion), even instructed them to assert their sexuality.
In a conservative society such as Mali’s, such messages were dynamite. But her critics could not put her off; Sangaré was ready to fight. “When you have too much pain in your heart, you stop being scared,” she says, her regal crimson robes blending with the finery of Paris’s George V hotel. “I had seen a lot; I had suffered a lot. I was drunk on hatred. I was ready to do anything for this cause.”
Her efforts did not go unnoticed. Malians fell in love with the angry young rebel who was revolutionising the music of the nation. Moussolou sold more than 220,000 copies. Soon she was touring West Africa, selling out stadiums and wowing fans with her charisma. All four of her subsequent albums – the latest of which, Seya (Joy), was released earlier this year – have dealt with women’s rights, love and marriage. One, 1996’s Worotan, means Ten Kola Nuts – the traditional price of a Malian bride.
Though her success has ensured her a place at some of the grandest tables in the world, Sangaré does not tone down her criticisms for anyone. Her straight-talking attitude has earned her global acclaim and led to her being named an ambassador of the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Unesco’s Artist for Peace in 2001. But it does not go down well with everyone. Once she sang for the king of Swaziland and seven of his wives. Her subject of choice? The evils of polygamy.
As a result of her stance on many issues, Sangaré is accused by her critics of being somehow “anti-tradition” and “anti-Malian”. It is an allegation which she, as a devout Muslim and passionate patriot, finds ridiculous. “I am a very traditional woman,” she says. “But not all traditions are worth keeping.”
In recent years, Sangaré has taken her fight for gender equality outside the realm of music and has spearheaded projects whose aim is to show by example what women, regardless of their place in society, can achieve if they put their minds to it. She has set up an association to help orphaned girls and mothers in trouble, and has built a hotel in Bamako. She has also bought 10 hectares of land in Mali “where women can work, if they want to work”.
These efforts have helped to endear her to an establishment at first wary of her progressive mentality. When, in 2006, she gave her name to a new brand of cheap 4x4 cars – the Oum Sang – in a Chinese-led attempt to make the vehicles more appealing to the average African family, it was the president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré, who came to cut the ribbon.
Now 41, Sangaré’s anger has gone; she forgave her father shortly before he died, has married and has a 14-year-old son living in Bamako, where she lives. (She has a pied-à-terre in the Parisian suburbs but admits she could “not leave Mali” for long even if she were to try.)
But her desire for progress remains as strong as ever. At the root of her indefatigability, she says, is her mother: the woman who persuaded her back on stage at the age of five and whose battle to save her children from the pitfalls of a poverty-stricken childhood will forever remain Sangaré’s template of human endeavour. “Everything has an origin,” she says, “and the origin of my courage is her.”
1968: Born in Bamako, Mali.
1971: Father remarries and moves to Côte d’Ivoire, leaving mother with three children and another on the way.
1982: Sangaré’s singing talent becomes family’s principal source of income.
1990: Releases first album, ‘Moussolou’, and becomes an instant hit throughout West Africa.
1998: Made a Commander of the Arts and Letters of France.
2003: Named ambassador for the UN’s FAO. Releases ‘Oumou’, a double CD retrospective of her career.
2008: Invited to sing at Harvard to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
2009: New album, ‘Seya’, is praised by critics as her most impressive to date. Embarks on world tour.