First, a short preamble. Oumou Sangare is a Malian singer, who steeps her music within Wassoulou, a hunter-gatherer culture whose base lies south of the Niger river in eastern Mali. When she was 21, Sangare was introduced to A&R heads at World Circuit Records by the now departed Ali Farka Touré, and has since been fusing her cultural traditions with rhythmic and brightly polyphonic African tribal melodies. While she composes all songs herself, much of what she does is based on traditional dances, usually embarked upon to wish hunters good luck in their travels. And Seya, her fifth album, is the first in six years.
So with history and context taken care of, what does Seya purport that’s worth clamouring over? To begin, this is Sangare’s most consistent record, and in such consistency, her most accessible. The prescription is simple; the songs revolve around a fairly hardened musical context, one that beams with syncopated percussion, Malian drums and thematic guitar interplay that floats from acoustic to electric effortlessly. Front and centre, as always, is Sangare’s voice; a gloriously shimmering howl, drenched in bright sunsets and successful harvests, and utterly captivating.
In comparison with her last album Oumou, the songs on Seya are simpler in scope, at least when broken down to their core faculties, which in turn heightens the ease of appreciation. And, brilliantly, Sangare manages to reflect her culture and traditions, while still mixing in enough modernity to appeal to Western ears. It’s Malian, but it’s pop music. And very good pop music at that.
As such, there is very little filler. Each song bounces off the next, and the mood remains jubilant throughout. Right through opener Sounsoumba, the title track and ending with Mogo Kele, Seya’s consistency gives up a strong, assertive theme, one that highlights Wassoulou music, but all the while understanding that a certain amount of familiarity can break down inhibitions against exploring the exotic. Panflutes and playful hand drums mix with symphonic accompaniment, African vocals nip and tuck through blues-flecked electric guitar, and north virtually intersects with south; it’s otherworldly in one sense, but utterly comforting and homely in another. Very few singers can straddle both territories effectively. Sangare masters it.
In doing so, Sangare has made the best album of her career, and arguably one of the better African female vocal albums in recent memory. It’s a simple promotion of the beauty of Malian culture. She may only be the tip of that iceberg, but her height is its acme.