Oumou Sangare

Seya

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If she sang in English, Oumou Sangare would likely be mentioned in the same breath as artists such as Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, vocalists who not only fashioned a unique manner of putting across in a song but directly and poignantly addressed the lives and struggles of women in their music. Sangare, arguably Mali's greatest female vocalist, writes all of her own material, and Seya features some of her strongest to date. From the opening track, the hypnotically beat-crazy "Sounsoumba," it becomes apparent that Sangare -- two decades after her debut, Moussolou -- has matured into a master of dynamics and emotion. Delivering her words forcefully, riding the rhythm, her backup vocalists responding dutifully, she suddenly turns up the heat three-quarters of the way in, goaded by a jazzy flute that explores the nuances of the melody. Courtesy of the translation in the booklet, we learn that Sangare is making the case here for harmonious living among the sexes -- while simultaneously imploring the listener to get up and dance. The pattern continues, each new tune forging its own identity while reiterating the singer's pleas for unity and understanding and a better life for all. "Wele Wele Wintou," which utilizes both Western instrumentation and native African instruments like the n'goni to create its ambience, may seem jubilant and danceable on the surface, but beneath lies an urgent call against the forced marriages so common in Sangare's culture. And the seductively cool, relatively minimalist "Mogo Kele" forgoes most percussion and relies on the local sounds of the balafon, calabash, and again, the n'goni, to provide a tranquil base over which Sangare relates her advice to make the most of one's time in this world. Sangare and producer Nick Gold employ the talents of dozens of musicians and vocalists to flesh out their ideas, but Seya never feels cluttered or less than intimate. And, even if one hasn't followed the English translations to understand what Sangare sings, it always feels important.

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