Oumou Sangare

The Philharmonic Hall, Hope Street

Reviewed by James Cookson

A duo opens the show with one singer and the other an instrumentalist… with some singing too as it happened.

If you haven’t been introduced to Malian music you can be forgiven for expecting an obscure ‘world music’ thing though perhaps even something quite sweet – well no, you can’t be forgiven: for this really is world class music, arguably Africa’s most influential. You must hear it.

The instrument used in the first act is called a kora – a 21 stringed ‘gourd harp’ with a skin resonator – its use, as the artist rarther modestly noted, can be traced to thirteenth century Senegal, its best known exponent today is Tounami Diabate. However old it is, with names like Diabate and Sissoko – virtuoso players, this is truly remarkable instrument. I feel a bit like some crass advertiser or salesperson when I admit that since I heard the sound of kora (as with everyone else I know who has): “I couldn’t stop listening to it” and it’s true, years later and I’m still passionately attatched to it!

I never managed to catch this kora player’s name apart from Sissoko (I’m convinced though, that he is Djellimaki’s grandson… his father being Ballake Sissoko -all master kora players). So anyway the playing was so beautiful; but then it stopped for break and was no more and, after the break - out came Oumou Sangare.

Oumou is one of Mali’s great singers, but is more than that – she is an outspoken activist; challenging dogmatic or false practice/traditions, in poverty, conflict and gender. The interesting aspect of this here is that she - audaciously – refused to speak much English… speaking mostly in French instead, which nevertheless was carried-off with amusement. The message got across: ‘respect for humanity and for life’.

There was a large band – mixing Malian instruments with the conventional, all great musicians. One (‘hunter’s’ or ‘youth’s harp’) was similar to a kora, and another, quite amazing (I mistook the sound for a saxophone at first), a small violin-like ‘gourd fiddle’ with a small bow. Drum (Djembe), Chanting/Backing vocals, and dancing too. The hall was packed, a cross-section of people, many local… many familiar faces. Oumou then got us to chant and sing “vous chantez trez trez bien!”, to clap and stamp… and finally, to dance “merci beaucoup!”.

A wonderfull experience. (Oumou Sangare’s compilation c.d. is available in most good stores, or have them order it for you).